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Apr. 6—JACKSONVILLE — The Ohio Valley Conference has no football championship game, but the league is getting something like it Sunday.
Jacksonville State will play at Murray State in the final week of the regular season, and the stakes are simple: the winner gets the OVC title and an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Both are 5-1 in the OVC, so Sunday's winner won't have to rely on a tiebreaker or somebody else beating somebody else.
Kickoff is 2 p.m. at Murray State's Roy Stewart Stadium, and as JSU quarterback coach Tyler Allen pointed out on Twitter, "that's all that matters."
JSU was in a similar situation in 2016 when the Gamecocks entered their final regular-season game against UT Martin unbeaten in the league. Martin had one loss, and if the Skyhawks had won, they would've shared the OVC title and won the automatic bid by virtue of a tiebreaker. JSU clinched its outright championship by winning 33-7 that day.
Here are five things to know as JSU prepares to face Murray State on Sunday:
1. Spring football
As JSU nears the end of its schedule, head coach John Grass said he's not a fan at all of having the FCS season in the spring again: "I'd be totally against that."
He added that "it's a complete negative to play in the spring."
"I don't think we've gotten near the exposure that you would think that we would get," Grass said during his regular weekly video call with reporters Tuesday. "I don't think there's been enough games on ESPN2 or ESPN. For our fans in general, our fans love football, and they're going to show up and come to games.
"All that's been fine on our end, but from national media across the country, they've missed some good opportunities across the country to put some games on television. You would think that would be the real reason you'd want to put FCS in the spring, but there's been hardly any of that."
2. Facing Murray State
Counting only games against OVC competition, Murray State enters Sunday's game first in the league in scoring offense, while JSU is first in scoring defense.
JSU also is No. 1 in the OVC in rushing offense, while Murray State is No. 2. JSU is first in rushing defense.
"I think we both pride ourselves on stopping the run and running the football. It should be a very physical game, and any game like this is going to be won in the trenches," Grass said. "I think their O-line and D-line are really good, and I think our O-line and D-line are really good."
Grass said that tight end Trae Barry (concussion) and safety Jeremiah Harris (hamstring) should be able to play Sunday. Neither played Saturday in JSU's win at Eastern Illinois.
3. Title game thoughts
Grass seems to enjoy the fun of having a final regular-season game decide the OVC championship. As JSU moves to the ASUN Conference this summer, he would like to see the new league grow large enough to have a yearly championship game, instead of having the luck of the schedule match the league's top two teams in the final week of the regular season..
"This week, we both control our own destiny" he said. "How many times does it happen like that? I do think a league championship game is a great thing.
"If you've got 10 or 12 teams and you can play a championship game, it's a benefit to the conference. Hopefully, the conference we're going to will grow into that one day."
4. Playoff bids
As a concession to the pandemic, the FCS will host only 16 teams in its annual playoffs this season instead of 24. That means in addition to 10 automatic bids, there are only six at-large teams.
Grass isn't hopeful that the OVC will get more than one team in the field.
"That'll be tough," he said. "I don't know."
He added that it's such a "bizarre year," with some teams having played only four games while JSU is playing its 11th on Sunday, including four in the fall.
"My opinion, which doesn't count for much," he said. "That committee isn't listening to me, but I think the OVC definitely deserves two teams in, but I don't know if they're going to do that or not. We're the only team in the country that's got eight wins over Division I opponents, so you would think we would be in irregardless."
Grass said, "We're not going to leave it up to the committee, so that we've got a right to play as the automatic qualifier."
5. Joiner leaves team
Redshirt junior Darius Joiner announced on social media this week that he is entering the NCAA transfer portal.
A starter at safety in three games this season, he has played in nine games and ranks seventh on the team with 38 tackles. He was not listed in the participation chart for Saturday's win at Eastern Illinois.
Unlike two weeks ago when Grass gave a lengthy defense of linebacker Zack Woodard leaving the team, the coach gave an eight-word answer Tuesday when asked about Joiner's status.
"Darius Joiner? He is no longer with us," Grass said.
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.