Davidson football in postseason for first time in 52 years

The Wildcats won the Pioneer Conference title and earned a spot in the FCS playoffs

For the first time in more than a half-century, Davidson football is back in the postseason. The Wildcats have an FCS Playoffs first-round game at Jacksonville State on Saturday. (Tim Cowie / Davidsonphotos.com)

The Davidson Wildcats had a magical season, inspiring one assistant coach to unveil a new recruiting pitch: “If you want to go to a bowl, come to Davidson.”

For one season, 1969, his promise to recruits was true. Davidson went 7-4, winning the Southern Conference and advancing to the Tangerine Bowl.

Now, 52 years later, Davidson is heading to the postseason for just the second time in school history. The Wildcats put together a 4-2 record in an abbreviated spring season, earning a spot in the FCS Playoffs on Saturday. Of the 16 teams in the field, only Monmouth (3-0), Sacred Heart (3-1) and Holy Cross (3-0) have fewer wins. At-large team North Dakota (4-1) is the only other four-win team.

In a year in which the season had to be shifted to the second semester due to a worldwide pandemic, the Wildcats now have a chance to earn their first postseason win in school history.

Just over a half-century ago, Davidson’s season included a win over coach Lou Holtz’s William & Mary team and a game against East Carolina where the Wildcats fell behind 27-0 before scoring right before halftime.

As the team went to the locker room, Davidson head coach Homer Smith announced to his staff, “I think we’ve got it figured out.” The Wildcats scored all 35 second-half points in a comeback win.

Davidson’s magical season was snuffed out in Orlando, when undefeated MAC champion Toledo defeated them 56-33 on Dec. 26. The team couldn’t even add a trip to Disney to its bowl week festivities, since the theme park wouldn’t be built for another two years.

This year’s Wildcats team will also be an underdog. Like the 1969 team, the Wildcats won just two home games en route to a conference title, finishing atop the Pioneer Conference. Davidson now heads south to the postseason once again, this time to Jacksonville, Alabama, to take on No. 4 seed Jacksonville State.

“We told the troops at practice last Friday we were officially in,” coach Scott Abell said. “It was about as emotional a moment I’ve had as a coach. Watching our players celebrate. There were tears.”

The Gamecocks went 6-1 in the spring, winning the Ohio Valley Conference. They also played in the fall, going 3-1 with a loss to Florida State and an upset win over Butch Davis’ Florida International University.

In addition to playing twice as many games as Davidson this season, Jacksonville State also has an edge in postseason experience, having won the Ohio Valley nine times. The Gamecocks have played 15 FCS playoff games, reaching the national championship game in 2015. This is their seventh trip to the postseason in the last eight seasons. They also won the Division II national championship in 1992 before moving up to FCS.

“We’re excited to be in the tournament. We knew we’d get one of the best teams in the country and Jacksonville State is certainly that,” said Abell, who on Monday was named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award as the Division I subdivision’s top football coach. “What a great opportunity for our program. … Getting a playoff berth in year three was probably something few people gave us a shot at, so I’m excited about the experience ahead for our guys.”

Davidson will look to its run game to lead it in the playoffs, as it has all season. The Wildcats lead the country in rushing at 293 yards per game, which has helped the Wildcats to move the chains and control the clock. Davidson converted on 56% of its third downs, also tops in the country.

The Wildcats have two running backs who average more than 75 yards a game in Dylan Sparks (519 yards in six games) and Coy Williams (459). The duo also combined for 10 rushing touchdowns.

Quarterback Tyler Phelps added 323 yards on the ground to go with his 617 yards passing and six touchdown throws.

Jacksonville State will provide a stiff challenge. The Gamecocks allowed opponents just 81 rushing yards a game this season. Safety Nicario Harper was the OVC defensive player of the year and a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award. JSU also had three defensive linemen and three linebackers selected All-OVC, with end DJ Coleman and OLB Laylen Swain making first team.

Jacksonville State is also balanced on offense, averaging 193.5 yards per game on the ground and 200.4 through the air.

The game kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday, with the winner getting either Delaware or Sacred Heart in the second round.

They may be underdogs in the FCS bracket, but for the first time in 52 years, Wildcat coaches can say, “If you want to go to the postseason, come to Davidson.”