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Southeast can claim the OVC football title outright with a win at Jacksonville St.
Jacksonville State was expected to contend for the Ohio Valley Conference title heading into the final stages of the season. Southeast Missouri State was not.
But those two teams will square off at 3 p.m. Saturday in Jacksonville, Ala., in a game that will help determine the conference championship. The matchup will mark the first time since 1995 that two top-10 nationally ranked OVC squads have met.
Southeast, up to seventh nationally -- the highest ranking in program history -- already has clinched at least a share of its first OVC title since joining the league in 1991.
The Redhawks (9-1, 7-0) would capture the crown outright and earn the OVC's automatic playoff berth by beating JSU (8-1, 5-1) in their regular-season finale, although they are virtually assured of making the playoffs even if they lose.
Pretty heady stuff for a squad coming off a 2-9 season that featured a last-place OVC finish and for a program that had not posted a winning record since 2002 while never making the playoffs on any level -- not even in Division II.
"The top two dogs in the conference going at it. It should be exciting. We expect nothing less than their best," senior linebacker Joshua Jackson said.
JSU almost certainly would have been the top dog in the nation had it not suffered its first loss of the season last week, 49-37 at Eastern Kentucky.
That knocked the Gamecocks from second in the rankings down to sixth. Previously top-ranked Appalachian State also lost, which would have opened the door for JSU to take over at No. 1.
The Gamecocks, who end their regular season Nov. 20 at Tennessee Tech, had won 12 straight games for the longest active winning streak in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA.
Southeast now is tied for that distinction. The Redhawks have won nine straight since a season-opening loss at FBS member Ball State. They have tied the program record for wins, matching the 1955 and 1937 teams that went 9-0.
"It will be the most physical team that we have played so far," said JSU coach Jack Crowe, whose squad was the OVC's preseason favorite. "Some of their numbers are just astounding. Coach [Tony] Samuel has got his team playing at such a high level."
JSU's first loss of the season did nothing to change Samuel's opinion about the Gamecocks.
"We all know they're a very good football team. They've got a great coaching staff. They went and beat an SEC team [Mississippi in the season opener]," said Samuel, Southeast's fifth-year coach. "It's going to be a big challenge for us, but this is what it's all about.
"Now is an opportunity we've been waiting on for a fair number of years. It's for all the marbles."
JSU has been the OVC's top program since joining the league in 2003, going 60-28 overall and 48-14 in OVC play during that time.
The Gamecocks won OVC titles in 2003 and 2004 while never finishing lower than fourth. They would have captured their third OVC crown last year -- they had the league's best record at 6-1 -- but were not eligible due to NCAA sanctions for Academic Progress Rate shortcomings.
"They've got a great history, no question about that," Samuel said.
JSU's defense is strong as usual, and the Gamecocks also are getting an impressive season from junior quarterback Marques Ivory, who directs an offense averaging a league-leading 35.4 points per game.
Ivory has completed 131 of 218 passes (60.1 percent) for 1,665 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. He set school records for passing yards (444), attempts (49), completions (30) and total offense (451) in last week's loss.
"They're a very good team in all three phases," Samuel said. "They've always had a great defense. They've got a great offense. They're scoring a lot of points. And they're very good on special teams."
Southeast has beaten JSU just once since the Gamecocks joined the OVC, in 2007 at home. The closest the Redhawks have been to JSU in the last three road meetings is 21 points.
Southeast and JSU actually have met one other time with the OVC championship on the line, in the final game of 2003. The Gamecocks won that matchup 22-17 at Houck Stadium, and the Redhawks haven't sniffed a hint of the title chase until now.
Even if the Redhawks lose, they still could claim the outright OVC crown and automatic playoff berth if the Gamecocks fall at Tennessee Tech next week.
The Redhawks would rather leave nothing to chance by taking care of business on their own.
"We're ready. Let's go get 'em. It should be a great matchup," senior defensive tackle J.J. Sanchez said.
Sanchez and junior quarterback Matt Scheible have been named to the CoSIDA/ESPN Academic All-District first team. They now will appear on the national ballot for consideration for Academic All-American.
Sanchez has a 3.82 grade-point average in criminal justice while Scheible has a 3.65 GPA in accounting.
Only one other OVC player, Eastern Kentucky defensive lineman Emory Attig, made Academic All-District.