Skyhawks' playoff hopes hinge on OVC finale against league leader
(STATS) – Jason Simpson has no problem speaking his mind. Especially at this time of year when a playoff spot is again on the line for UT Martin.
In a glass half-filled world, the longtime Skyhawks coach would be confident that even if his squad did not record a sixth consecutive Ohio Valley Conference victory by upsetting Jacksonville State on Saturday to win the league title and its automatic FCS playoff bid, it would still be good enough to earn the program's first postseason appearance since 2006 as an at-large selection.
Closer to reality, Simpson knows receiving an at-large berth might be tougher than taking down the two-time defending OVC champions and reigning FCS runner-up Gamecocks (9-1, 6-0) at Burgess-Snow Field.
“It looks like on paper right now that (the NCAA selection committee is) only going to take the automatic qualifier (from the OVC),” said Simpson when referencing the scenario should his team lose Saturday.
“To penalize this football team if we don't win this week. .. And not get an at-large bid ….”
Three of Simpson's teams over the past four years won at least seven games. The Skyhawks finished third in the league in three of those seasons and went 6-2 in the conference for two, yet have not been rewarded. Since the FCS playoffs started in 1978, the OVC has received two bids 21 times and once – in 2013 – it got three.
This year, Jacksonville State will make it win or lose Saturday.
But possibly because UT Martin and 6-4 Tennessee State are the only other league teams with winning records overall, the Skyhawks' only postseason chance is to win the conference. It probably won't matter that UT Martin played three FBS schools, and competed well in a 28-7 loss at Cincinnati and 41-36 setback at Hawaii to open the season. The Skyhawks lost 31-6 at Georgia State last month.
Martin averages 34.6 points to lead the OVC and ranks second in total defense at 323.9 yards per contest – JSU is first in the FCS at 246.1. The Skyhawks have outscored their last three opponents 90-30.
“We have a lot of confidence in our defense,” Simpson said. “Certainly the guys are comfortable. They believe in our defensive system. Certainly they'll have to play a great game this week.
“I mean, if you walk into this game thinking you're going to outscore them, that's not a good way to approach this football game. It's a playoff-style type game, field position is crucial, turnovers are crucial, touchdowns in the red zone are crucial. Our defense is going to have to play a huge part in setting up any success for our offense.”
Simpson believes Jacksonville State, second in the STATS FCS poll and winner of 30 straight games against non-FBS opponents, will be as tough as any of the Skyhawks' FBS foes.
“The three FBS teams we played, they would not want to play Jacksonville that's for sure,” Simpson said.
The Gamecocks, who have never dropped a league contest in coach John Grass' three seasons, last lost to Martin at home in 1987. However, the Skyhawks nearly came back from a 48-20 fourth-quarter deficit last season, scoring the final 21 points and putting a bit of a scare into JSU before falling 48-41 at home.
Gamecocks star Eli Jenkins threw for three touchdowns – all to receiver Josh Barge, who had nine catches for 107 yards.
“This game is always a good one because those guys are never out of a game,” Grass said. “We know it is big for them and they have a lot to play for. They feel like this is their only way to get in – to win the conference championship. We know we are going to get another A-plus game and they will come ready to play.”