Oct. 22—JACKSONVILLE — The year was 1998. Mike Williams was the head coach and Montressa Kirby the quarterback, and Jacksonville State led at halftime.
McNeese State went on to dominate the second half of JSU's lone football game against FCS's No. 1 team and win 30-14.
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Only 23 years have passed, and JSU hopes for better in its second shot at the No. 1 team.
The Gamecocks (3-3, 1-0 AQ7) will play top-ranked and defending national champion Sam Houston State (5-0, 3-0) on the road Saturday. Let the understatements begin.
"This is a playoff-caliber game for sure," JSU coach John Grass said. "You're playing the defending national champion, so you kind of see where you're at nationally with how you play this week."
JSU has kind of been at the top of FCS football since 1998.
The Gamecocks held the No. 1 ranking for much of the 2015 season and were No. 1 when they beat then-No. 6 Sam Houston State 62-10 in the FCS semifinals.
JSU was No. 1 when it played No. 3 North Dakota State in the FCS title game three weeks later, but the Gamecocks' high-water mark in Division I hit a dam called North Dakota State. Eventual first-round draft choice Carson Wentz came back after missing half of the season with an injury and led the Bison to a 37-10 victory.
That's how it's gone when JSU has hit or challenged No. 1 in the school's Division I era
It looked good for a half in 1998. Kirby's touchdown pass to Joey Hamilton and conversion pass to Ronald Bonner and Kirby's touchdown run gave JSU a 14-0 lead.
It was 14-7 by halftime, and McNeese State scored 23 unanswered points in the second half.
JSU went on to finish 7-4. McNeese State went on to finish 9-2, hold the sixth seed in the FCS playoffs and lose in the first round to eventual national champion UMass in the first round.
Fast-forward 23 years, and JSU is trying to hang on to relevance in FCS football.
The Gamecocks won the Ohio Valley Conference, reached the quarterfinals of a COVID-abbreviated, 16-team playoff and finished No. 7 in the final polls in the combined fall-spring, 2020-21 season.
A few months after that season ended in May, JSU left the OVC for the new ASUN. ASUN members have combined with WAC survivors to form a one-year arrangement that allows all access to an automatic berth to the FCS playoffs.
That put JSU and Sam Houston State temporarily in the same conference (sort of) for the first time since 2002, when both teams played in the Southland Football League. That set the stage for JSU's second collision with the No. 1 team in FCS.
The Gamecocks have battled injuries and suffered ups and downs so far this season. They beat Florida State then struggled to beat North Alabama before losing to Tennessee-Martin and Kennesaw State.
A 28-24 victory over Stephen F. Austin sent JSU into a much-needed open date with hope. SFA led Sam Houston State 20-6 before the Bearkats came back to win 21-20.
Bearkats quarterback Eric Schmid missed that game with an injury, but he's back.
At No. 21 in the AFCA FCS coaches poll and receiving votes in the STATS FCS poll, JSU approaches its shot at No. 1 like a team that sees itself on par with the best.
"This is a big game, of course, but I'm approaching this game as I would any other game," safety Nicario Harper said. "They're defending national champions, so of course I'm really excited. I'm preparing a little bit harder, studying a little bit more, but every game is a big game."
Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.