The rest of the conference didn’t necessarily buy that, picking the Gamecocks fifth in their first conference preseason poll and putting only two players on the preseason all-conference team.
It didn’t take the Gamecocks long to flex their muscles, winning the league that year and the next.
But in the years that have passed, the rest of the conference has caught up. Some might say in some places it has even passed them.
In has been since 2004 that JSU has won the OVC outright. And even though the Gamecocks were picked fourth in this year’s preseason predicted order of finish, on the eve of their conference opener with Murray State there are plenty on the team who think they’re still the team to beat.
“In my opinion we still are the big dogs there. Nothing has changed,” senior offensive lineman Taylor Johnstone said. “Last year we didn’t have a good year. That’s just one year.
“Somebody in the press conference before the season asked what I thought about where we were picked. I said it’s just a ranking. It’s preseason. It doesn’t mean anything."
Actually, the Gamecocks go into the game as the only undefeated team in the league at 4-0.
Winning the conference opener would be a big boost, since preseason No. 1 and 2 – Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky – are playing each other Saturday.
As tight as the conference race is expected to be this year, JSU coach Bill Clark compares every game the rest of the way to a playoff game.
“I told our guys when we got here we were one of the top teams in the league,” he said. “And when we got here the bull’s-eye stayed on Jacksonville State and rightfully so from the previous success from early on.
“But I think our league has a lot of them (who) caught up. They put an emphasis on football, it became important and that’s how they’re playing.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.