SPARTANBURG -- Wofford's football team loaded two buses Friday afternoon and got back on the road to redemption.
The next stop is Jacksonville, Ala., for the FCS playoffs. Wofford (9-2) plays at noon today against Jacksonville State (9-2) in a second-round game, with the winner facing either William and Mary or Georgia Southern in the quarterfinals.
After a disappointing 3-8 campaign IN 2009 and a 2-5 Southern Conference record that was their worst since joining in 1997, the Terriers hit the comeback trail this season as they tied Appalachian State for the league championship at 7-1 and made postseason play for the third time in four years, and fourth since 2002.
"The thing that we started with in January, you can call it our theme or our mantra or whatever, was the road to redemption," Wofford head coach Mike Ayers said. "We talked about starting in Athens, Ohio (against Ohio University) and finishing in Frisco, Texas (for the Jan. 6 national championship game)."
Those were lofty goals indeed for a team that was picked in a preseason poll by its own Southern Conference coaches to finish sixth among nine.
"I'm sure there are a lot of folks who said we were not realistic," Ayers said. "We were 3-8, didn't play well and all that. But the road to redemption was what we hung our hats on. We talked about it a great deal. We also know that talk is cheap. We had to work."
Wofford lost that season opener to Ohio, needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Charleston Southern and expectedly cruised past NAIA Union (Ky.) College in the first three games. Junior quarterback Mitch Allen said the Terriers were still unsure of where their road would lead.
"All through the offseason program and into fall practice, our goal was to get back on top," Allen said. "Quite frankly, at the beginning, even some guys on the team probably didn't know if it was possible. But as things started rolling and we started winning some games, we realized we had an opportunity to get back to the playoffs and maybe go far. That's where we are now. We're grateful for what we've achieved, but we're looking to do more."
Jacksonville State, under 11th-year head coach and former Clemson offensive coordinator (1986-88) Jack Crowe, has the best winning percentage in the FCS since joining in 2003. The Gamecocks upset Mississippi to open the season and also beat Ohio Valley Conference champion Southeast Missouri State, but finished runner-up in that league with two losses in the final three games. This is their third playoff appearance, the first since back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, although they are 25-8 in the past three seasons.
"We're going to bring everything we've got because it's going to take everything we've got," Crowe said. "We play a great Wofford team."
The Terriers face a fourth straight playoff game on the road. They won at Montana, 23-22, to open the 2007 postseason and then lost at Richmond, 21-10. In 2008, they were eliminated in the first round at No. 1-ranked James Madison, 38-35. Wofford played at home for the first two rounds of 2003, beating North Carolina A&T and defending champion Western Kentucky, before losing in the semifinals at eventual national champion Delaware.
Jacksonville State has never come close to winning in the Division I playoffs. The Gamecocks lost at Furman, 49-7, in 2004 and had a similar fate in 2003 with a 45-7 blowout defeat at Western Kentucky. They haven't been at home for a playoff game since the Division II days in 1992, when they won a national championship in Florence, Ala.
"I think history will say that a home team has an advantage in the playoffs," Crowe said. "I don't think it's an enormous advantage, but I do think the home team has a clear advantage. …It boils down to how our people respond. This is the first time we've been in this situation for so long that I'm not sure all our people had their schedules made. We've had 20,000 people at games and I'd like to think we'd have 20,000 at this one."
Wofford has gone a long way on its road to redemption. The Terriers hope to keep riding for another month.
"We've turned it around," Ayers said. "We've made a lot of progress and we've won a lot of big games. But we're not done."