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.
One of the most prolific rivalries in the Gulf South Conference will take place once again when North Alabama (2-1) plays Delta State (1-1) in the GSC opener for both teams.
The teams have met at least once each season since 1960 and have played each other 11 times - including the Division II playoffs - in just the past six years.
"This has always been a good rivalry and I know it has heated up over the last several years," said North Alabama coach Bobby Wallace, who coached at UNA from 1988-97 and then returned to the school this year. "Games like this are why it's exciting and fun to coach in this conference."
The Lions hold a 30-24-1 lead in the series, though Delta State has won the past three. Wallace went 8-2 against the Statesmen during his first stint at UNA.
Samford at Western Carolina, 2:30 p.m.
Samford (3-0, 1-0 Southern Conference) is looking to go 4-0 for the first time in 17 years. To do so the Bulldogs will have to defeat a Western Carolina team that Samford coach Pat Sullivan said is "by far the best we've played since we've been here."
"It is a different team than we have seen in years past," Sullivan said of the Catamounts (1-2, 0-1). "Coach (Mark) Speir came from Appalachian State, and they are very similar to Appalachian State on offense. They have a transfer quarterback from Marshall, Eddie Sullivan, who we were very interested in trying to get to come here, who is playing well. They are playing with a lot of enthusiasm."
Samford is coming off a 44-23 victory over Gardner-Webb. Fabian Truss returned three kickoffs for a total of 146 yards in the game, including a 97-yarder for a touchdown, and was named the national special teams player of the week by the Sports Network.
West Alabama at Valdosta State, 6 p.m.
West Alabama will be facing what has historically been its biggest obstacle in the Gulf South Conference this week. The Lions (2-1) have never won at Valdosta State (2-1) and trail in the overall series 28-2.
UWA nearly broke the road losing streak to Valdosta last year, falling 22-21 despite outgaining the Blazers in total yardage 420 to 278.
"This is a big week for us, a game we have been looking toward since we played them last year," UWA coach Will Hall said. "We have a lot at stake and I believe we will embrace that. We get to go to a place where we have never won in the history of this school, to try to do something that's never been done before. We are looking forward to the opportunity."
Miles at Albany State, 6 p.m.
It will be a rematch of last year's SIAC championship game when Miles (2-1) takes on Albany State (1-2) in the conference opener for both teams.
Albany State has long been one of the top teams in the SIAC, but the Rams were upset by Miles 20-17 in last year's title game. While the Golden Bears have returned most of their key players from that team, the Rams are off to a slow start this year with two consecutive losses.
"It's probably the first time in history that we have ever played them where they are probably the favorite in the game," Albany State coach Mike White said.
Stillman vs. Kentucky State, 5 p.m.
Stillman (1-2) will try to rediscover its running game against Kentucky State (1-1) after being held to minus-1 yard rushing in a loss to Shaw last week.
The Tigers offense had to rely entirely on quarterback Josh Straughan, who completed 26-of-53 passes for 212 yards in the 31-26 loss.
Kentucky State running back Justin Williams was named SIAC offensive player of the week after scoring three touchdowns and gaining 108 all-purpose yards in a 35-23 victory over Lincoln University.