Date: Saturday, August 26th
Time: 7:30 PM (ET)
The Quick Hits
They haven’t clashed since the 2021 Celebration Bowl in the very same city that hosted them that time, Jackson State and South Carolina State will get together again in this year’s MEAC/SWAC Challenge game on Saturday night. The Tigers are essentially an entirely different team now with a revamped roster and new head coach since Deion Sanders left in a mass exodus to Colorado last winter. The transfer portal taketh and giveth, however, as Jackson State has brought in a whopping 29 transfers.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are out to prove that their down year in 2022 was not the norm but merely a fluke. A new defensive coordinator is in the booth now and with one of the most storied coaches in the game on their side, SC State is ready to again make some noise in the MEAC.
Either way, this will be a statement win for someone.
Oliver “Buddy” Pough is as legendary as they come as he gears up for his 22nd go with SC State, a season that will be his final. Pough announced earlier this week that he plans to retire at the conclusion of this season and what an epic run it’s been. The Bulldogs head coach has guided the program through some of the best years of its existence since 2002. He has 146 wins under his belt along with eight MEAC titles, four conference Coach of the Year awards and four trips to the FCS playoffs. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with more experience and wisdom on the sidelines.
On the other side, Jackson State finds itself on the very opposite end of the experience spectrum with first-year head coach T.C. Taylor. Taylor, who served as a wide receivers coach under Deion Sanders over the last two seasons, will be getting his first taste of calling the shots this year. That being said, he’s been with the program since 2019 and has already established himself as one heck of a recruiter this offseason. Now it’s time to see the fruits of his labor between the white lines.
SC State Offense vs. Jackson State Defense
The Bulldogs offense will go as far as senior quarterback Corey Fields can take them. The sixth-year signal-caller is back and he’s coming in with over 5,500 career passing yards and 48 touchdowns. Last fall may have been a down year for Fields, who missed significant time due to a shoulder injury. If he can get back to what he was in 2021, SC State will have a real shot to make some noise this season.
One of the best weapons Fields will have to work with is wideout Jordan Smith. Smith finished second on the squad in receiving yards last year with 263 (17 catches) but with standout Shaquan Davis gone, he should be the go-to guy this season. Smith averaged over 15 yards per catch in 2022 and notched three touchdowns.
Going up against Smith will be a challenge and its one that Jackson State safety Esaias Guthrie will have the privilege of doing. Guthrie transferred in from Delaware State and shapes up to be JSU’s most solid piece in the secondary. With the Hornets last year he nabbed All-MEAC honors in 2021 after snagging four interceptions and logging 32 tackles.
Meanwhile up front, Devonta Davis is back for the Jackson State line and that’s huge. Davis authored 58 stops last year and broke through for 7.5 tackles for loss. He also forced a fumble and broke up a pass a season ago. He could have a big day against a SC State ground game that lost its top two rushers this offseason.
Jackson State Offense vs. SC State Defense
Big names from a year ago are missing all over the JSU roster but perhaps no more so than at quarterback. Shedeur Sanders left for Colorado with his father and that means the door has been opened for someone new to take on the roll as the Tigers signal-caller. The team has yet to name their Week 0 starter but odds are it will either be Virginia Tech transfer Jason Brown or Zy McDonald from Louisiana. Both have been taking reps with the first team this summer.
Brown has 786 passing yards and eight touchdowns between his two FBS stints with the Hokies and South Carolina in 2022 and 2021 respectively. Before that, he threw for over 3,000 yards and 28 scores while with St. Francis. The sophomore McDonald, meanwhile, has seen the field very little as a collegiate QB.
Taylor is keeping his cards close to the vest here and it’s not a bad strategy to keep SC State’s defense guessing until the last possible minute on who to prepare for. What the Bulldogs do know, however, is that senior running back J.D. Martin will be toting the rock often. Martin is one of the few familiar faces remaining from last season. He has 575 all-purpose yards since joining the Tigers in 2021 and has accounted for seven scores.
Also returning to the lineup with Martin is , who transferred in from South Carolina after the 2021 season, caught nine passes for 54 yards last fall.
Combating this JSU offense will be a very stout defensive line for SC State. Linemen Patrick Godbolt and Jared Kirksey will shore up a front that sacked opposing quarterbacks 20 times last year. The duo was responsible for seven of those.
The Special Teams
Don’t be surprised if this game comes down to a big kick and, if it does, SC State knows they have the guy who can get it done. Junior Gavyn Zimmerman has made 16 of his 17 field goal tries since joining the Bulldogs in 2021 and has a career long of 42. He’s also hit on 90% of his PATs.
On the other side, JSU will go with Gerardo Baeza who kicked in only four games last season. He connected on his one field goal attempt (30 yards). Baeza got most of his work on kickoffs, booting the ball away 19 times and averaging 59.8 yards per kick.
Jackson State also picked up grad student Matt Noll from Delaware State this offseason. Noll is currently listed as a kicker on JSU’s roster as well but all of his experience has come as a punter. He averaged nearly 43 yards per punt (65) in 2022 and had an 80-yard bomb in the Week 11 contest against Morgan State.
If any team is going to come out of the gates this year with a fire in its belly, surely it’s Jackson State. The Tigers are eager to prove that losing Sanders was not a setback and what better opportunity for Taylor to make an early impression in the hearts and minds of fans than getting a win in this one? SC State will strike first but JSU will claw back in with the help of two (or maybe more) quarterbacks. While Pough’s Bulldogs will give the Tigers a fight to the end but, in what shapes up to be a back-and-forth affair, Jackson State will score late and will come out with a huge victory and get off to a 1-0 start, winning their first ever MEAC/SWAC Challenge.
Score Prediction: SC State: 24 - Jackson State: 27