Like swallows returning to Capistrano, every year college football fans bemoan FBS schools scheduling smaller FCS teams for guaranteed victories.
But every year, FCS teams rise up and beat FBS teams — some even putting a major scare into a powerhouse. (See Jacksonville State-Auburn in 2015.)
For fans of The Citadel, having the opportunity to take down the biggest dog in their state — South Carolina — makes it worthwhile.
In what was supposed to be a tuneup for their rivalry game against Clemson, the Gamecocks were tripped up by The Citadel, 23-22, last year in an upset reminiscent of The Citadel's 38-35 upset of South Carolina in 1990.
The Gamecocks were reeling coming into the 2015 game, having lost four in a row. Up by two in the second half, their inability to put away the Bulldogs cost South Carolina dearly. To recap:
An Eric Goins field goal with less than 11 minutes to play gave The Citadel the lead. SC came back and scored on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Perry Orth to Pharoh Cooper. A two-point conversion would have put USC up seven but The Citadel held.
Trailing 22-17 and facing a third-and-1 on their own 44-yard line, Bulldogs running back Tyler Renew scampered 56 yards for the go-ahead score. It was Renew’s longest run of the season.
South Carolina would have to go 97 yards in 86 seconds to avoid being embarrassed at home. A 94-yard pitch and catch for an apparent TD with just 39 seconds left was called back because of a false start. The Citadel held on a fourth-down play and the Gamecocks were done.
“They outreached us, they outplayed us and they outclassed us, everything from the penalties, to the rushing to the playing,” Gamecocks interim head coach Shawn Elliott said. “I told (The Citadel head coach) Mike Houston to get in the locker room and celebrate with your football team because they deserved everything you did today and they did it extremely well.”
And well earned, indeed.
In their first victory against an FBS team in 27 tries, the Bulldogs reportedly made $285,000. Next year, The Citadel will get $300,000 for playing at Clemson. (JSU made $525,000 for playing Auburn.)
“There’s a reason why these games are scheduled, and that's to balance the budget,” Houston told the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier last year. “I told our kids, I’d like to get to the point where we can go into these games and be competitive, with a realistic chance to win. It was done here before and I want to get the program to that point.”
On the heels of their first conference crown since 1992, The Citadel is at the point of advancing further than the first round of the FCS playoffs.There’s a new head coach — offensive coordinator Brent Thompson was promoted when Houston left for James Madison in January. But 14 starters return, including two All-Americans (defensive back Dee Delaney and running back Tyler Renew) and seven all-conference players.
The Citadel’s opponents, including North Carolina, will have its hands full with the Bulldogs’ triple-option led by Renew and quarterback Dominique Allen, the team’s leading rusher last season. The two combined for nearly 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2015. Four of the five starters on the offensive line also return with defensive end Nick Jefferies moving to offensive tackle.
So can the Bulldogs make it two in a row vs. Carolina schools?
Unlike South Carolina, North Carolina is a projected Top 20 team and the Tar Heels are 4-0 all time against the Bulldogs.
But it will be fun to watch The Citadel try.
GAMES TO WATCH
A look at 10 games involving ASN-affiliated teams to watch in 2016:
27 — Charleston Southern at North Dakota State: The Buccaneers, Big South title contenders, and Bison, four-time defending FCS national champions, open the season in the 2016 FCS Kickoff in Fargo, N.D. The game will be CSU’s first appearance on ESPN.
3 — Southern Miss at Kentucky: If you're looking for an FBS upset special, this might be it. The Golden Eagles likely will open the season as Conference USA’s team to beat against the SEC’s Wildcats.
10 — Jacksonville State at LSU: The FCS runner-up Gamecocks make their first trip to Baton Rouge, but before you mark this down as a guarantee game for the Bayou Bengals, consider that JSU almost knocked off Auburn on the road last season.
17 —Western Carolina vs. East Tennessee State at Bristol Motor Speedway: A week after Tennessee plays Virginia Tech at the NASCAR speedway, ETSU kicks off its return to the Southern Conference against the Catamounts at the historic track. “It’s especially cool for me,” said WCU head coach Mark Speir, “a guy from Kannapolis, N.C., who grew up in the heart of NASCAR country and has been a fan all my life, to have our team compete on that stage in what will be transformed into college football’s largest stadium.”
24 — Kent State at Alabama: MAC programs will play three non-conference foes that finished in the final AP Top 10, including Bowling Green at Ohio State (4) and Miami (Ohio) at Iowa (9) on Sept. 3, but none bigger than the Golden Flashes at Alabama (1). Alabama head coach Nick Saban is a Kent State graduate.
8 — Northern Illinois at Western Michigan: Battle of MAC Western Division contenders could decide who plays the Eastern Division champion in the conference title game.
29 — Marshall at Southern Miss: Two of Conference USA’s top quarterbacks, the Thundering Herd’s Chase Litton and the Golden Eagles’ Nick Mullens, meet in what could be a conference championship game preview.
5 — Colgate at Fordham: Colgate beat Fordham 31-29 last season to clinch the Patriot League championship. The Rams, led by junior running back Chase Edmonds, get the rematch at home this season.
19 — Richmond at William & Mary: James Madison, Richmond and William & Mary shared the 2015 CAA Football title with 6-2 records and this game, a week after the Spiders play JMU, could decide the 2016 champion.
19 — The Citadel at North Carolina: The fifth meeting between the schools is later than any of the previous four, The Citadel’s website notes. The series dates back to an October game in 1915 and includes September meetings in 1939, 1986 and 2009.
Above: The Citadel celebrates its first victory against South Carolina in 25 years. (Courtesy of @CitadelFootball via Twitter)