Just four seasons into football’s return at the school, ETSU is one of 24 FCS teams still standing. The Bucs play at Jacksonville State in the first round Saturday at 7:30 p.m. It is being carried by ESPN3.
“It’s a new season,” Jacksonville State coach Tom Grass said. “In the playoffs, it kind of starts over. Throw the records out the window.”
Both teams have the same record — 8-3 — but they have reacted differently about it. ETSU is ecstatic about getting eight wins, especially after being picked to finish eighth in the Southern Conference.
Jacksonville State? Not so much.
“We’ve stubbed our toe along the way,” said Grass, whose team has won the last five Ohio Valley Conference championships and played in the national championship game in 2015. “We lost three ballgames. We grew from those losses. A lot of time, you grow from your pain.
“We’re playing really good football right now. I think this team has a chance to make a run.”
This is Jacksonville State’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance. The Gamecocks have gotten a first-round bye in each of the previous five.
“It’s what they expect,” said ETSU coach Randy Sanders, who was chosen as the SoCon’s coach of the year this week. “It speaks volumes for their program and what they’ve been able to do. It’s new for us, but it doesn’t change how you go approach the game or how you play or anything else. I don’t think that will have any impact on the outcome Saturday.”
“Every team has its own identity and every year is different,” he said. “Some of our older guys have experience in the playoffs. Is that going to affect this game? No. I think whatever team is the hungriest and plays well that Saturday is going to continue to play.”
While the Bucs are playoff newbies, they’re not heading into the game with the attitude that they’re just happy to be there.
“It’s amazing how once you get a little taste of success, you want more,” Sanders said.
Jacksonville State is No. 8 in the FCS coaches and STATS polls. ETSU is ranked 21st by the coaches, 22nd in the STATS poll.
This is the first season the ETSU players weren’t able to go home to be with their families on Thanksgiving. As much as the players love their families, they were happier to experience the holiday together knowing what would be coming at the end of the week.
“It’s a good thing,” quarterback Austin Herink said. “We’ve been home the last four Thanksgivings, so it’s good that we won’t get to be home for this one. We’ll get to go home for a long time after this season, so we’re soaking up every last second up here now.”
Both teams are coming off losses. While ETSU fell 38-27 to Samford, the Gamecocks suffered a 60-52 loss to Kennesaw State in a game that went five overtimes and probably cost them a first-round bye.
“We played well,” Grass said. “We should have ended the game in regulation. We had several chances to do that and we didn’t. I don’t think any of us would expected the game to go five overtimes. If I thought it would go that far, I would have probably gone for two in the second overtime.”
The winner travels to Maine to take on the Black Bears, the No. 7 overall seed in the playoffs.