Jacksonville State (0-0) at (8) Michigan State (0-0) (ET)
GAME NOTES: In one of just two FCS-FBS matchups on Friday, the Jacksonville State Gamecocks will travel to East Lansing to take on the eighth-ranked Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium in the season opener for both squads.
Jacksonville State and Michigan State have never met on the field prior to this matchup. The Spartans had a near-perfect record in 2013, finishing the season at 13-1 with one hiccup against Notre Dame. The team eventually finished the year ranked No. 3 in the FBS and toppled fifth-ranked Stanford in the Rose Bowl, 24-20, to end the campaign.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio enters his eighth season at the helm for the Spartans, and has led his team to a bowl game in each of the last five years (with wins in the past three). His squad returns a healthy number of starters from a season ago, which includes some of the biggest names in all of college football.
Jacksonville State had quite the season at the FCS level in 2013, finishing the year ranked No. 10 in the country following a trip to the FCS quarterfinal round of the playoffs. The Gamecocks were 11-4 on the season, including 5-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference, which was good for a third-place tie.
There was no shortage of offense for the Gamecocks last season, who came on strong in the latter half of the schedule. Jacksonville State managed 35.2 ppg and an astounding 240.3 rushing ypg in an offense centered around All-American running back DaMarcus James. James is a bruiser who rumbled for 1,477 yards and 29 touchdowns on 292 carries last season, and is on the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding player in the FCS.
He's complemented by standout quarterback Eli Jenkins, who didn't start under center last season until an injury allowed him playing time. He made the most of it, throwing for 887 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 953 yards and eight scores. The man he replaced as the starter, Max Shortell, is also still on the roster.
Jenkins has weapons returning that will keep defenses honest. Telvin Brown (441 yards, two touchdowns), Anthony Johnson (four touchdowns) and Josh Barge are all back from solid underclassmen campaigns. The offensive line is a strength as well, led by center Max Holcombe.
Defensively, Jacksonville State lost a lot of production at the linebacker spot, and safety Pierre Warren opted for the NFL early after a standout season. But the defensive line is strong, led by tackle Caleb Lawrence (446 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, six sacks) and is now also featuring Alabama transfer defensive end LaMichael Fanning (6-foot-7).
Senior Ben Endress will be counted on to lead the linebacker corps after losing three standout performers at the spot. Last season, the linebackers helped Jacksonville State hold opponents to 23.6 ppg and 381.5 yards of total offense per outing.
In the secondary, the loss of safeties Warren and Brandon Ender (101 tackles, five pass breakups) hurts, but cornerbacks Rashod Byers (49 tackles, 10 pass breakups) and Jermaine Hough (51 tackles, eight pass breakups) will do well against most receivers.
For the Spartans, this will be an offense itching to get back out on the field after a strong 2013 campaign that saw them average 29.4 ppg and 385.5 total offensive ypg. It all starts with returning starter Connor Cook at quarterback. Cook showed beautiful command of the offense a year ago by throwing for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions.
"I'm always looking for more," Dantonio said. "Really, I am. I'm always looking for a little bit more. I think all of our coaches do that. We look for the guys who aren't making mental mistakes, the guys who are giving a little bit more effort. We can always get better."
The offense, which ranked 80th in the nation in total offense, should be bolstered by Cook and running back Jeremy Langford, who is back for his senior season. Langford averaged 102 rushing ypg last year and scored 19 total touchdowns (18 rushing, one receiving) on a hefty 292 carries. His workload should be about the same this year.
Unlike the running back position, where Langford is the clear number one, Dantonio has stressed more depth at wide receiver entering this season. With players like Tony Lippett (44 receptions, 613 yards, two touchdowns), DeAnthony Arnett and Keith Mumphery on the field, Cook will have plenty of options to which he can throw.
It was the defense that stood out for Dantonio and Michigan State last season. The Spartans allowed just 13.2 ppg to opponents and held those offenses to a mere 252.2 ypg of total offense - both ranked in the top three in the country. The defense in 2014 is led by lineman Shilique Calhoun, who is a projected top 10 draft pick after recording 6.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries last year.
All-conference safety Kurtis Drummond leads the way for the defensive backfield (91 tackles, six pass breakups and four interceptions in 2013), but gets help from two-year starting cornerback Trae Waynes (50 tackles, five pass breakups).
"We've had a lot of players come through here and do all the right things and Kurtis is just another one of those guys," Dantonio said. "He's been a leader on the field; his teammates recognize that. He's been able to keep his composure in all types of situations throughout his career and he's got the opportunity to lead our team this year."
Big linebacker Taiwan Jones is coming off a season in which he recorded seven tackles for loss. He'll be the main man among the linebackers after the departure of Denicos Allen.
There's no question Michigan State will be one of the final teams vying for college's first-ever playoff. And with a core group of playmakers returning on both offense and defense, there's no doubt the Spartans will be in the hunt for the Big Ten title (especially with the questions surrounding Ohio State and Braxton Miller's successor).
Jacksonville State will put up a good fight for a small-school competitor, and will be one of the top teams at the FCS level when all is said and done. But going against Michigan State in the first contest of the season is too much of a mountain for the Gamecocks to climb.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Michigan State 43, Jacksonville State 20