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Jackson State: Caught in the Middle

Jackson State has a winning history, a nice media market, a large stadium; basically everything you need to build a Division One football program. JSU is positioned right in the middle of the SWAC and would also fit well in the Sun Belt if they ever decided to move up.

Jackson State fell to Tulane 34-7 in 2013.
Jackson State fell to Tulane 34-7 in 2013.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

With names like Walter Payton and Jackie Slater, Jackson State boasts a long, storied history. From 1977 to 1990, the Tigers won at least 8 games 13 times in 14 seasons. Jackson State plays in a 60,000 seat stadium, and has finished in the Top 10 in FCS attendance in all but five years from 1978 to 2009. In 1997, they had over 38,000 in average attendance; by 2013, that number had dropped to a little over 17,000 per game, but that's still higher than plenty of Division 1 FBS schools.

For some reason, the Tigers never had much postseason success; they are 0-12 all time in the FCS playoffs, with a 28-7 loss to MTSU in 1990 and a 48-7 loss to Montana in 1989 their most recent chances.

Then again, the FCS playoffs never were appealing to the SWAC; largely due to the cost of traveling to places like Montana and Delaware, it wasn't worth it for SWAC teams to participate. In 1999, the SWAC split into two divisions and started a championship game. JSU has made the championship game five times, winning once.

This season, the MEAC has also dropped out of the FCS playoffs. There will be a SWAC-MEAC championship game starting this fall. Is that enough to keep Jackson State happy?

In 2011, former Athletic Director Bob Braddy said "Our limits have been reached" in the SWAC.

But have they?

Is Jackson State destined to win 8 or 9 games a year and maybe get to play for a SWAC title? The western division of the SWAC has been dominant in the title game, and it remains to be seen how the conference stacks up against the MEAC.

It's hard to pinpoint why the Tigers have such a lackluster postseason history, but it could simply be level of competition. The SWAC may have a lot of history behind it, but it just isn't on the level of every other FCS conference when it comes to football, and JSU's postseason readiness may not have benefited from feasting on their conference opponents from Mississippi and Alabama.

JSU is 12-8 all time against Alabama A&M, 29-8-1 against Alabama State, 39-24-1 against Alcorn State, and a whopping 49-5-2 against Mississippi Valley State. But the records aren't as impressive against stronger SWAC programs from Louisiana. Rival Southern is 31-29 all time against JSU, and Grambling State convincingly leads the series 42-24-1.

Would JSU be successful in the Sun Belt, a conference with no teams in Mississippi, but potential rivals in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama? The Tigers would certainly fill a void in the Sun Belt while bringing the Jackson, MS market and one of the stronger SWAC fan bases into the fold. In return, the Tigers would get a chance to play in a bowl game on a national stage.

Jackson State's budget is less than $8 million, while nearby schools in the Sunbelt (Troy, South Alabama, ULL, and Arkansas State) all have a budget of $20-$25 million. ULM's budget is just over $12 million. Jackson State did have over $1.5 million in ticket revenue in 2014, so the fan base is there. A move to the Sun Belt would certainly increase revenue from a conference distribution standpoint.

Sun Belt teams typically play three "money games" or "body bag" games per year, so Jackson State would be able to increase revenue by playing two additional games against P5 teams. Financially, JSU would be the bottom of the food chain in the Sun Belt, but it's reasonable to believe they could surpass ULM's budget pretty quickly and be in a respectable position in relation to schools from the bordering states.

But can they win?

From a recruiting standpoint, Jackson State should be able to get players. In this report, neighboring states Louisiana and Alabama ranked first and second in FBS players per capita, while Mississippi ranked seventh. Nearby states Georgia and Florida, with much larger populations, ranked third and fourth. The Deep South is fertile recruiting ground, so there are players for Jackson State to recruit for sure.

Mississippi also has a junior college system that puts out tons of Division One players. Scrolling through the Database, at least 105 junior college players from the Mississippi Juco system signed with FCS or FBS schools.

Could other SWAC schools make the same or better argument for FBS football? Southern or Alabama State both certainly could, but there are already five FBS teams in Louisiana and five more in Alabama. JSU would be only the fourth FBS school in Mississippi and they have the advantage of being in the center of the state and in the largest media market.

Jackson State has always been a winning program in the regular season, but they've had little postseason success overall and none recently. Are they better off sticking to what they appear to do best, and keep gunning for a MEAC/SWAC title? Or should they pursue their apparent - if currently limited - FBS odds?

You tell us: What do you think of Jackson State's FBS potential?