The Gamecocks wrapped up their regular season Saturday with a 42-34 win over Southeast Missouri that started off strong but went down to the final minute to preserve.
It left them 9-3 in Clark’s first season. In most years, that would be strong enough to get a team an at-large playoff bid if they hadn’t wrapped up their league beforehand, but the Gamecocks’ participation rides on the decisions of a selection committee many miles away.
Midway thought the third quarter, while the Gamecocks were working on a 35-13 lead, the NCAA tweeted the selection committee had arrived in Indianapolis to start its deliberations. The complete 24-team bracket will be announced Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on ESPNU.
The Gamecocks have submitted a bid to host and are said to have pitched a 7 p.m. game for next week’s first round — well after the conclusion of the Iron Bowl despite their campus being closed all week for fall break.
Clark wouldn’t speculate on his team’s chances of getting in out of sheer inexperience with the process.
“I guess I’m going to leave that up to these guys who decide that,” he said. “I think we do (deserve to get in), I think we’ve done enough to get in, but, once again, I can’t speak on all these other teams.”
The Gamecocks went into their final regular-season game hoping to help themselves, but expecting to need some help around the country.
Wins by Lafayette, New Hampshire, Furman and Samford would seem to work against them, but losses by Montana State, Sam Houston State, William & Mary and Delaware would seem to help them.
On Saturday night, The Sports Network projected a JSU-Samford first-round game with the winner to play Southeastern Louisiana.
The players, obviously, would like to keep going, but Clark said he sensed from them this was the end. Senior linebacker Rashad Smith said he would be disappointed if the Gamecocks were left out, but said their conference record (5-3) left him “wishy-washy” about their chances.
“Hopefully, we get in,” quarterback Eli Jenkins said. “It’s been a long season, but we’re still trying to push it. I feel like if we get in, we’ll be hard to beat.”
JSU athletics director Warren Koegel believes the Gamecocks “certainly deserve” to be in the expanded field.
“We’ve got an exciting team and we have some quality wins this year,” he said. “In terms of play on the field, there is no doubt that we deserve a chance to continue our season.
“We feel like when the SRS Ratings are released tomorrow, we are going to have a very high rating. We feel like our rating will be higher than many of the automatic qualifiers and we feel like we will be ranked above many other teams also fighting for a playoff spot.”
For any of it to matter, the Gamecocks had to win Saturday. They did, but after opening up a big lead, had to hang on for their potential playoff life.
They took the upper hand early, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions of the game and four of their six possessions in the first half. The two that failed were a fourth-and-short stop at midfield — one of the few times DaMarcus James has been stopped in short yardage this season — and Griffin Thomas’ missed 42-yard field goal attempt on the final play.
It was a record-setting day for the Gamecocks. Believing they could run on the Redhawks, the Gamecocks had 440 rushing yards and 587 total, setting the single-season school record for total offense in the process (5,244).
With three touchdowns, James set the Ohio Valley Conference record for touchdowns in a season. He finished with 206 yards to surpass 1,000 for the season and 2,000 for his career. He has 23 touchdowns this season — all rushing.
“It’s just another game,” James said. “There’s nothing to it.”
Jenkins, playing the whole game at quarterback with Max Shortell sidelined with an unspecified injury, rushed for 124 yards and passed for 147 more. Troymaine Pope rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
“That’s exactly what we asked our guys to do, start fast and what you hope is a team that’s not had a great year would start to pack it in,” Clark said.
But Clark knew better, and the Redhawks (3-9, 2-6 OVC) did make it interesting late.
The Gamecocks took a 42-13 lead into the fourth quarter, but SEMO scored three touchdowns in the first 7:19 of the quarter to make it a one-score game.
DeMichael Jackson scored on a 32-yard run on the first play of the quarter, quarterback Kyle Snyder scored on a 4-yard run and Ron Coleman scored on a 1-yard run. The Redhawks got inside the red zone in the final minute when Jamill Lott stopped them a yard short on a fourth-and-10 play, leaving only one second on the clock.
“I don’t want to say we were over there partying. Guys were still in the game,” Clark said. “They kind of got rolling, and we had a hard time stopping them. Thank God we had the big stop at the end and came out with a win.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.