Off the field, Jacksonville State football players find many ways to develop a bond with each other.
They like to attend JSU basketball games or play sports in the rec center on campus. Sometimes they go bowling, to the movies or swimming. There's even been talk of paintball.
But no off-the-field activity has helped build team chemistry quite like the Gamecocks' white water rafting trips down the Ocoee River in Tennessee.
Several dozen players made the two-hour-plus drive from their Alabama campus to just outside Chattanooga for their first rafting trip in the summer of 2009. This past summer, they made another venture down the Ocoee, and the number of participants swelled after many had heard for two years how the original group spent that summer vacation.
"Other than it being fun, it definitely helped us because you're not going to get down the river safely if you don't have everybody working together in synch," said redshirt senior defensive end Monte Lewis, the Ohio Valley Conference's preseason co-defensive player of the year. "It definitely brought us together as one."
Perhaps nobody epitomized the importance of the JSU players learning to rely on each other more on the Ocoee than Lewis. He doesn't know how to swim.
But, with both a life jacket and the confidence in his teammates, Lewis entrusted the experience would outweigh any danger.
"I've got a lot of faith in my teammates. I know they won't let anything happen to me," he said.
"It's rough once you get in there. It just takes control of you. You have no control once you're in the water."
During this year's ride, few of the JSU rafts had the weight of the one which consisted of Lewis and defensive linemen Mike Clark, Marquis George, Barry Stafford and DiMetrio Tyson as well as their position coach, Davern Williams, and a tour guide.
The white water was rough enough that players routinely fell into the river. That included Lewis, who followed directions, kept his feet up and waited for his teammates to pull him back into their raft.
"I think it brought us together a little bit more," said George, the senior backup to Lewis. "It's kind of a team-bonding kind of thing when you make your way down the river. The current's going all crazy, you listen to your tour guide and follow directions, it just brings you together. It kind of correlates on the field. When there's a lot of chaos going on, you just have to tune in, lock in and really work as a team to get the goal accomplished."
On Saturday, the Gamecocks can't afford to have sea legs. Their 10th-ranked squad will visit the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, ranked 23rd, for the first regular-season match-up between ranked teams in Finley Stadium history.
The Mocs, who suffered a 40-7 loss at Nebraska to open their season last Saturday, need the game a little more considering they have serious aspirations of making the FCS playoffs. The Southern Conference squad wasted a 17-point lead in a 21-17 loss at Jacksonville State in last year's meeting - a defeat that helped keep the Mocs out of the playoffs.
JSU has been the master of the rally since the start of the 2010 season, with eight of its 10 wins coming from behind, including a 24-23, season-opening escape against OVC rival UT Martin last Saturday.
Gamecocks sophomore quarterback Coty Blanchard will make his first start on Saturday after Marques Ivory suffered a season-ending broken fibula against UT Martin. Chattanooga counters with one of the FCS' top quarterbacks, B.J. Coleman.
Coleman can expect to draw the ire of JSU players like one of the tour guides did on the Gamecocks' white-water rafting adventure this summer. The guide wore a Chattanooga shirt that day, and the players, knowing they would be back in Tennessee, gave him some grief.
"We're very close. We have a common goal," George said. "Last year, after we lost to Wofford (in the playoffs), it left us with a bad taste in our mouth. We're really focused on achieving this goal of winning the OVC and, eventually, a national championship."
"A bunch of people were skeptical about doing (the rafting)," Lewis said, "but once we got out there and they saw everyone else having fun, they just bought in."
And continued to develop their team chemistry.
James Madison (0-1) will debut the $62.5 million of renovations to Bridgeport Stadium (25,000 capacity) on Saturday against Central Connecticut State (1-0).
Some now consider Bridgeport the jewel of the FCS.
Less than 2,000 tickets remained available for Saturday's game as of Monday. The Richmond (Oct. 1) and Villanova (Oct. 15) games already are sellouts.
Athletic director Jeff Bourne has denied the stadium upgrades are a prelude to JMU moving up to the FBS.
Seventeen of the 21 players drafted out of Football Championship Subdivision schools this year made NFL rosters after teams reached the 53-player limit this past weekend.
The highest drafted player who was cut was former Appalachian State safety Mark LeGree, taken in the fifth round by the Seattle Seahawks. The others were outside linebacker Markell Carter (Central Arkansas) by the New England Patriots, fullback Shane Bannon (Yale) by the Kansas City Chiefs and Frank Kearse (Alabama A&M) by the Miami Dolphins.
FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION ...
Once again this season, In the FCS Huddle is projecting the potential FCS playoff field. The projections are a long-range look at the season - not based off current records or rankings - and can be found at http://www.sportsnetwork.com/fcs/FCS_Bracket.pdf
AROUND THE NATION
FCS teams went 2-36 against Bowl Subdivision teams in the first week of the season. There are 20 match-ups this week ... Northern Iowa heads to Stephen F. Austin on Saturday for a match-up of ranked teams - UNI is No. 4 and SFA is No. 16. How's this for frustration? In the last six seasons, UNI coach Mark Farley and his program have lost three times by one point to FBS teams - 28-27 to Iowa State in 2006, 17-16 to Iowa in 2009 and 20-19 to Iowa State last weekend ... SFA might be OK without 2010 Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) winner Jeremy Moses at quarterback. Starter Brady Attaway and Dalton Williams combined to go 45 of 63 for 507 yards and seven touchdowns in the season opener, albeit against Division III McMurry ... After falling 66-13 at Virginia Tech, No. 3 Appalachian State should get on track in a big way Saturday in its home opener against North Carolina A&T. The Mountaineers have won 18 of the last 19 games that follow a loss in the same season. A victory would make Jerry Moore the 16th coach in history to win 200 games at a Division I school ... Liberty quarterback Mike Brown went over 5,000 total offensive yards in his career against North Carolina State. Despite losing, 43-21, the Flames outgained the Wolfpack, 406 yards to 318, and were in the game in the fourth quarter. On Saturday, the four-time defending Big South champions seek to avenge a loss to defending Northeast Conference champion Robert Morris last season. The Flames' schedule doesn't get any easier the rest of the month as they host James Madison on Sept. 17 and visit defending Patriot League champion Lehigh on Sept. 24 ... Colgate's biggest concern this offseason was replacing All-Patriot League quarterback Greg Sullivan. Sophomore Gavin McCarney wasn't too shabby in his debut against Monmouth, throwing for 210 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Up next is the Raiders' league opener at Holy Cross on Saturday ... Are "U" ready for MEAC showdowns? Last year's four best MEAC teams will be on ESPNU this week - Florida A&M visits Hampton on Thursday (7:30 p.m.) and 2010 FCS playoff qualifiers South Carolina State and Bethune-Cookman meet in an even bigger game Saturday (4 p.m.) in Daytona Beach, Fla. ... Texas Southern interim head coach Kevin Ramsey will make his debut in a Southwestern Athletic Conference game against Prairie View A&M on Saturday. The FCS' other new head coaches went 5-10 in the first week of games ... Longtime rivals Tennessee State and Jackson State meet Saturday night in the Southern Heritage Classic at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn. The way to slow JSU quarterback Casey Therriault is to run the ball, and TSU ground out 342 yards in last week's 33-7 domination of Southern. Redshirt sophomore Trabis Ward led the way with 141 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries ... Cal Poly and Montana keep playing tight games in recent years, and they meet again on Saturday in Missoula, Mont. Last September, Cal Poly pulled a 35-33 upset of the Grizzlies when they were ranked No. 1. Coach Robin Pflugrad did a terrific job of spreading the ball around against Tennessee in his team's first game last weekend. Quarterback Jordan Johnson should start to flourish this season ... Speaking of Cal Poly, it would seem the Great West will have a hard time bouncing back from a 1-4 opening week with four games against Big Sky competition and North Dakota playing up to FBS Idaho (although an upset is quite possible) ... The Montana State at Oregon game scheduled for Sept. 15, 2012 in Eugene was canceled because Oregon did not want to play an FCS team and Montana State sought to add a sixth home game. Stephen F. Austin will fill the home date for the Bobcats, although the date has yet to be announced ... From the just wondering department: Alcorn State and Tennessee Tech are both playing only 10 games, with two October byes. Why don't they schedule a game against each other instead of both teams being off on Oct. 8?
JUST THE PICKS
Last Week's Record: 75-13 (.852)
Season Record: 75-13 (.852)
All Times EST
Thursday, Sept. 8
X-Florida A&M (1-0) at Hampton (1-0), 7:30 p.m.
Maryville (0-1) at X-Tennessee Tech (0-1), 8 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 10
South Dakota State (1-0) at X-Illinois (1-0), noon
X-Old Dominion (1-0) at Georgia State (1-0), noon
Central State (0-1) at X-North Carolina Central (0-1) at Cleveland Browns Stadium, noon
X-No. 13 New Hampshire (0-1) at No. 14 Lehigh (1-0), 12:30 p.m.
Maine (1-0) at X-Pittsburgh (1-0), 1 p.m.
American International (1-0) at X-Bryant (0-1), 1 p.m.
Duquesne (0-1) at X-Dayton (1-0), 1 p.m.
Alabama State (1-0) at X-Eastern Michigan (1-0), 1 p.m.
X-Colgate (1-0) at Holy Cross (0-1), 1 p.m.
Norfolk State (1-0) at X-West Virginia (1-0), 1 p.m.
Apprentice (0-1) at X-Campbell (0-1), 1 p.m.
X-No. 5 William & Mary (1-0) at VMI (0-1), 1:30 p.m.
North Greenville (1-0) at X-Presbyterian (0-1), 1:30 p.m.
Northern Colorado (0-1) at X-Colorado State (1-0), 2 p.m.
Jacksonville (0-1) at X-Western Illinois (0-1), 2 p.m.
McMurry (0-1) at X-Texas-San Antonio (1-0), 2 p.m.
Butler (1-0) at X-Indiana State (0-1), 2:05 p.m.
UC Davis (0-1) at X-No. 6 Montana State (0-1), 3:05 p.m.
Cal Poly (0-1) at X-No. 15 Montana (0-1), 3:05 p.m.
X-No. 12 Sacramento State (1-0) at Southern Utah (0-1), 3:05 p.m.
Eastern Illinois (1-0) at X-Northwestern (1-0), 3:30 p.m.
No. 7 Wofford (1-0) at Clemson (0-1), 3:30 p.m.
North Carolina A&T (1-0) at X-No. 3 Appalachian State (0-1), 3:30 p.m.
X-Morehouse (1-0) at Howard (0-1) at RFK Stadium in Washington, 3:30 p.m.
South Carolina State (0-1) at X-No. 25 Bethune-Cookman (1-0), 4 p.m.
Valparaiso (0-1) at X-Youngstown State (0-1), 4 p.m.
Rhode Island (0-0) at X-Syracuse (1-0), 4:30 p.m.
Lamar (1-0) at X-South Alabama (1-0), 5 p.m.
North Dakota (1-0) at X-Idaho (0-1), 5 p.m.
X-Murray State (0-1) at Mississippi Valley State (0-1), 5 p.m.
Fort Lewis (1-0) at X-Northern Arizona (0-1), 5:05 p.m.
X-No. 1 Eastern Washington (0-1) at South Dakota (0-1), 5:05 p.m.
Charleston Southern (0-1) at X-Florida State (1-0), 6 p.m.
Texas State (0-1) at X-Wyoming (1-0), 6 p.m.
X-Lafayette (0-1) at Georgetown (1-0), 6 p.m.
X-Stony Brook (0-1) at Buffalo (0-1), 6 p.m.
Missouri State (0-1) at X-Eastern Kentucky (0-1), 6 p.m.
Furman (0-1) at X-The Citadel (1-0), 6 p.m.
Marist (1-0) at X-Bucknell (1-0), 6 p.m.
Wagner (1-0) at X-No. 9 Richmond (1-0), 6 p.m.
No. 17 Southern Illinois (1-0) at X-Mississippi (0-1), 6 p.m.
Catawba (0-1) at X-Coastal Carolina (1-0), 6 p.m.
Western State (0-1) at X-Idaho State (0-1), 6 p.m.
Central Connecticut State (1-0) at X-No. 19 James Madison (0-1), 6 p.m.
X-No. 10 Jacksonville State (1-0) at No. 23 Chattanooga (0-1), 6 p.m.
Mars Hill (1-0) at X-Western Carolina (0-1), 6 p.m.
Shaw (0-1) at X-Delaware State (1-0), 6 p.m.
West Chester (0-1) at X-No. 8 Delaware (0-1), 6 p.m.
Tusculum (1-0) at X-No. 2 Georgia Southern (1-0), 6 p.m.
No. 4 Northern Iowa (0-1) at X-No. 16 Stephen F. Austin (1-0), 7 p.m.
X-Lenoir-Rhyne (1-0) at Davidson (0-1), 7 p.m.
Nicholls State (1-0) at X-Western Michigan (0-1), 7 p.m.
X-Alabama A&M (0-1) at Southern (0-1), 7 p.m.
Tennessee State (1-0) at X-Jackson State (1-0) at Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., 7 p.m.
St. Francis, Pa. (0-1) at X-No. 11 North Dakota State (1-0), 7 p.m.
No. 18 Central Arkansas (1-0) at X-Louisiana Tech (0-1), 7 p.m.
X-Alcorn State (0-1) at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (0-1), 7 p.m.
Grambling State (1-0) at X-ULM (0-1), 7 p.m.
Gardner-Webb (1-0) at X-Ohio (1-0), 7 p.m.
Morgan State (0-1) at X-Bowling Green (1-0), 7 p.m.
Concord (0-1) at X-Elon (0-1), 7 p.m.
Robert Morris (0-1) at X-No. 24 Liberty (0-1), 7 p.m.
No. 20 Villanova (0-1) at X-Towson (1-0), 7 p.m.
Grand View (1-0) at X-Drake (0-1), 7 p.m.
Stillman (1-0) at X-Samford (0-1), 7 p.m.
Morehead State (1-0) at X-Illinois State (0-1), 7:30 p.m.
Weber State (0-1) at X-Utah State (0-1), 8 p.m.
Prairie View A&M (0-1) at X-Texas Southern (0-0), 8 p.m.
Northwestern State (1-0) at X-LSU (1-0), 8 p.m.
Savannah State (0-1) at X-Southeastern Louisiana (0-1), 8 p.m.
Western New Mexico (1-0) at X-San Diego (1-0), 9 p.m.