The Gamecocks were picked fourth by the league’s coaches and sports informatin directors Monday, and Clark thought it was a bit generous, considering JSU has a new head coach, new staff and no established quarterback.
Then he thought the JSU name carries some weight around the league and regardless how things look on the surface, conference insiders always expect the Gamecocks to be a threat.
“It’s a level of respect there for where we are,” Clark said at the league’s annual football publicity session Monday. “But at the same time, it gives us something to shoot at, for sure.”
The fourth-place projection is JSU’s first outside the top two since 2006 and their lowest when eligible for the poll since tying for fifth in 2003 — their first year in the league. All they did that year was win the title.
“We’d take that same history,” Clark said. “That would be awesome.”
Defending champion Eastern Illinois was installed as the heavy favorite. The Panthers collected 12 of 18 possible first-place votes. Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State were picked second and third, respectively.
JSU was followed by Tennessee Martin, Murray State and Tennessee Tech, Southeast Missouri and Austin Peay.
“It’s an honor we got picked preseason No. 1, but I also think it’s a burden,” EIU coach Dino Babers said. “We have to teach these young people to rally within themselves and not read all the hype.
“It’s cool they’re getting that recognition and I’m excited for them because they’re young people and they like to get stuff like that. For me as a coach it’s just a matter of going out every Saturday and finding a way to get a win.”
The pick also can be a curse. The preseason favorite hasn’t won the league outright since 2002. JSU was picked to win it in 2011 and finished in a three-time tie with EKU and Tennessee Tech, but didn’t get a postseason bid.
It’s for that reason Gamecocks junior center Max Holcombe doesn’t put much stock in the poll.
“It really doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s preseason — nobody can predict the future. Once the season starts anything can happen. Being picked fourth doesn’t bother me.”