Game Time: Saturday, August 25, 2018, 4 p.m. ET
Location: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama
How To Watch: ESPN
Betting Odds: Jacksonville State -7, O/U 45.5
The first nationally televised game of the year won’t be the Mountain West duel between Colorado State and Hawaii or the Group of Five non-conference between New Mexico State and Wyoming, but one of the premier FCS non-conference games of the season.
Jacksonville State is looking to erase the memory of last year’s disappointing finish. The Gamecocks entered the postseason as the No. 3 team in the FCS Playoffs, but they were defeated by Kennesaw State 17-7. It was the third time in four years that the Gamecocks were upset in their first playoff game after being given the No. 3 seed.
North Carolina A&T would love a repeat of last year. The Aggies finished the regular season undefeated, and they capped off the best year in school history with a Celebration Bowl victory over Grambling. The win gave North Carolina A&T its second HBCU national championship in three years.
Reasons to Like Jacksonville State
John Grass has established himself as one of the best coaches in the FCS. Grass is entering his fifth season as head coach and has lost just four regular season games during his tenure. Those losses came against FBS foes Michigan State, Auburn, LSU, and Georgia Tech, and the Gamecocks were a considerable underdog in each of those games.
The defense is set to be very good once again. Jacksonville State has had one of the top defenses in the nation year in and year out during this decade, and there’s no reason to suspect anything will change in 2018, even with the loss of stars like Darius Jackson and Siran Neal.
Reasons Not to Like Jacksonville State
It’s anyone’s guess at to who the starting quarterback will be. Last year’s starter Bryant Horn left the team in July, leaving the position in a bit of a lurch. Redshirt freshman Zion Webb and Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper have been battling for the top spot all throughout the summer, but Grass has yet to tip his hand in regards to who will start this year. Cooper is seen to have a slight edge due to his experience at Clemson, but no one knows for sure.
Reasons to Like North Carolina A&T
Quarterback Lamar Raynard is back, and he should be one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS this season. Raynard led the MEAC in a number of categories last season, and he was named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. He was extremely efficient, throwing for nearly nine yards an attempt and completing 63.7 percent of his passes in 2017, while also showcasing his legs when need be. He is the main reason to like the Aggies here.
This defense is set to be one of the top units in the FCS as well, especially when it comes to stopping the run. Darryl Johnson and Sam Blue are both preseason HBCU All-Americans, and a number of starters return in the front seven. That’s key when playing against Jacksonville State, a team that loves to run the ball.
Reasons Not to Like North Carolina A&T
There is a massive hole at left tackle this year. Brandon Parker was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and it will be impossible to replace him. Parker was the best offensive lineman in the MEAC by a mile over the last three years, and he was always protecting Raynard’s blind side. Losing a player of his caliber is going to be tough, and his replacement will be thrown into the fire.
This game is going to be a virtual home game for Jacksonville State, but the Gamecocks have more questions than the Aggies headed into this one. We are unsure how the quarterback play will be and if Jacksonville State can’t throw the ball effectively, North Carolina A&T will bottle up the run and shut down the Gamecocks offense. Raynard is talented though to beat this defense, and my money is on North Carolina A&T to pull off the upset on Saturday.
Final Score: North Carolina A&T 21, Jacksonville State 17