Even though Jacksonville State's lone open date came after only two games, coach Jack Crowe is not complaining. That's because it provided a little extra preparation time for a game that recently has been one of the Gamecocks' biggest of the season — against Ohio Valley Conference rival Eastern Kentucky.
JSU (1-1, 0-0 OVC) will take on the Colonels (2-1, 0-0) at 5 p.m. CDT Saturday in Richmond, Ky. Eastern Kentucky has beaten the Gamecocks in three of the past four meetings to take a 5-4 lead in the series. The Colonels prevailed in a wild game last season, rallying from a 24-point deficit in the final 7:30 to defeat JSU 52-48.
"If (Eastern Kentucky) were in Alabama or Tennessee, it would stand as a unique rivalry because of the games that we have played against them," Crowe said. "This game has produced some great plays on both sides and has decided who is going to the playoffs and who wins the conference championship, probably more than any other game between two teams in the OVC. Everything about this game says, 'Bring your best shot.' "
The Gamecocks will be better equipped to bring their best shot this week following the return of wide receiver Trey Smith from injury and running back Washaun Ealey from suspension and injury. Crowe said several other players likely would have had to sit out last week had JSU played, another reason he was grateful for the early open week.
"We needed the time we had off," Crowe said. "I think the players recovered a little bit in their time away. . We expect to see 100 percent from both (Smith and Ealey) this week. There were some other guys who have missed some work and I don't think we could have played last week with some guys, but they are back to where they were."
EKU is led by senior running back Matt Denham, who has rushed for 334 yards and three touchdowns this season and caught a 32-yard touchdown pass in last week's 35-17 victory over Coastal Carolina.
"Matt Denham is a guy who everybody wants one like him running the ball because he is consistently going to put in a positive play," Crowe said. "He is all-conference for a reason."
Alabama State vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 6:30 p.m.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff brings an extremely balanced offense into Thursday night's game against Alabama State (2-1, 2-0 SWAC). The Golden Lions (2-1, 1-1) have passed for a total of 503 yards and rushed for 499 yards this season.
"Everyone talks about how they want to be balanced, but this team is as close to balanced as I've ever seen," ASU coach Reggie Barlow said. "Their offensive coordinator (Eric Dooley) has the type of players that he wants and the quarterback (sophomore Benjamin Anderson) that he wants. They're making plays, and we have to be mindful they can pass and run equally well."
ASU has a short week to refocus following an emotional 19-18 road victory over Grambling. The Hornets took the lead with 4:15 to play on a 29-yard touchdown run by Greg Jenkins, then stopped Grambling on fourth-and-1 to seal the victory.
Alabama A&M at Texas Southern, 11 a.m.
Alabama A&M (3-0, 2-0 SWAC) has faced some uncertainty this week in preparation for a Texas Southern team that changed defensive coordinators on Monday.
The Tigers (1-2, 1-1) allowed an average of 40 points and 514.7 yards per game through the first three games, prompting head coach Darrell Asberry to fire defensive coordinator Kevin Ramsey and replace him with defensive backs coach Kevin Johnson.
"That will have an effect on what we do," A&M coach Anthony Jones said. "We don't know his tendencies."
A&M is off to a 3-0 start for the first time in five years.
North Alabama at Delta State, 6 p.m.