NC A&T went undefeated last season with a win against an FBS team included in its resume, but finished only 14th in the final national poll behind teams with as many as five losses.
It’s a lack of respect that comes from the fact that the Aggies are a member of the lightly regarded Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and skipped the FCS playoffs to play in the Celebration Bowl for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities championship.
Saturday, armed with many of the same players that forged last year’s success, the Aggies will get a chance to finally earn the mainstream national respect they’ve previously been denied when they take on No. 6 Jacksonville State in Montgomery, Ala., in the nationally televised FCS Kickoff.
Gametime is 7 p.m. on ESPN.
“We’re looked upon on a national level,” said A&T’s Sam Washington, the team’s former defensive coordinator who will make his head coaching debut after taking over for the retired Rod Broadway. “I am so tickled pink and happy that ESPN thought enough of our brand to invite us to play a Top-10, 1-AA football team. That says a lot about what we are. Life is about growth, and I think that’s what we are doing here. We’re growing.”
The growth process can take a quantum leap forward with a victory against a team that took Auburn to overtime in 2015 and is the preseason favorite to win its fifth straight Ohio Valley Conference championship.
The Gamecocks (10-2 last year) are loaded with high-profile FBS transfers, including quarterback Zerrick Cooper, formerly of Clemson, former South Carolina wide receiver Shaq Davidson and a running back that started his career at Georgia in Tramel Terry.
Jacksonville State should also be stout defensively, even without coordinator David Blackwell, who left for East Carolina after leading his unit to FCS top 10 finishes in rushing defense (third at 75.6 ypg), total defense (third at 238.6 ypg), passing efficiency defense (fifth at 102.4), scoring defense (seventh at 15.0 ppg) and third down conversion percentage (30.1).
While there’s no question that the Gamecocks will present a difficult challenge for the Aggies, A&T quarterback Lamar Raynard is quick to point out that Jacksonville State should have its hands just as full dealing with a team that could be even better than it was a year ago. That’s especially true on offense, where in addition to Raynard — the MEAC’s Player of the Year in 2017 — the Aggies also return their top rusher in Marquell Cartwright and top receiver in Elijah Bell..
“We have playmakers everywhere,” Raynard said. “We’re going to take what the defense gives us. If they want to drop back in coverage, we’ll run the ball. If they want to throw it. We have the best of both worlds.”
A&T is just as sound defensively, where Mac McCain had three pick-sixes among his six interceptions as a freshman last season and end Darryl Johnson was named on the preseason watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award symbolic of the best defensive player in FCS.
“It’s going to be a great experience to show off our talent,” Raynard said of Saturday’s opener at historic Cramton Bowl Stadium. “ We’re going to go down there and ball, play A&T football.”
That’s something Jacksonville State coach John Grass knows all about, even if a lot of others nationally doesn’t.
“They are a deep football team and they return a lot of guys,” Grass said at his first weekly press conference Monday. “They did lose a few linemen from last year, but most of their skill people are back on offense. I think the running back is an NFL back and they have had the conference player of the year the last two years. The quarterback is very athletic and can throw and run the football well. He makes very few mistakes. We have a challenge in front of us.”