The Big South-OVC Football Association may be a marriage of realignment convenience (or necessity), but look past the merger and you’ll find an FCS conference that is now ripe for an inaugural auto-bid race with more questions than answers.
Here are the top returning players and our predicted order of finish in the Big South-OVC.
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Returning All-Conference Players
From last season’s All-Big South Team/All-OVC Team
Southeast Missouri – 9 (OVC): DB Lawrence Johnson (1st Team), KR/PR Dalyn McDonald (1st Team/1st Team), LB Bryce Norman (1st Team), OL Zack Gieg (1st Team), RB Geno Hess (1st Team), WR Ryan Flournoy (1st Team), DB Ty Leonard (2nd Team), DL Steven Lewis (2nd Team), LB Keandre Booker (2nd Team)
Gardner-Webb – 8 (Big South): DB Raequan Ousley (1st Team), DB Jamari Brown (1st Team), DL Ty French (1st Team), LB William McRainey (1st Team), OL Gabriel Thompson (1st Team), RB Narii Gaither (1st Team), DB AJ Thomas (2nd Team), LS Jamie Wilson (2nd Team)
Bryant – 7 (Big South): DL Kenny Dyson (1st Team), K Ethan Gettman (1st Team), KR Anthony Frederick (1st Team), WR Landon Ruggieri (1st Team), OL Jamichael Watts (2nd Team), QB Zevi Eckhaus (2nd Team), TE Jihad Edmond (2nd Team)
Eastern Illinois – 7 (OVC): K Stone Galloway (1st Team), LB Elijawah Tolbert (1st Team), DB Nick Coates (2nd Team), KR Mark Aitken (2nd Team), LS Jack Valente (2nd Team), OL Chad Strickland (2nd Team), PR Cooper Willman (2nd Team)
UT Martin – 6 (OVC): DL Daylan Dotson (1st Team), OL Gavin Olson (1st Team), TE DJ Nelson (1st Team), OL Lamar Morgan (2nd Team), RB Sam Franklin (2nd Team), WR DeVonte Tanksley (2nd Team)
Lindenwood – 5 (OVC): DB Darion Bolden (1st Team), DL Kobe McClendon (2nd Team), K Logan Seibert (2nd Team), OL Ethan Johnson (2nd Team), OL Gareth Warren (2nd Team)
Charleston Southern – 2 (Big South): DB Jamel Johnson (2nd Team), RB JD Moore (2nd Team)
Tennessee State – 2 (OVC): DL Terrell Allen (1st Team), DB Bryce Phillips (2nd Team)
Tennessee Tech – 2 (OVC): DL Kail Dava (2nd Team), OL Nate Hodnett (2nd Team)
Robert Morris – 1 (Big South): LB Joe Casale (2nd Team)
Teams Bringing In The Most D1 Transfers
Robert Morris – 20 (7 FBS, 13 FCS)
UT Martin – 15 (11 FBS, 4 FCS)
Bryant – 11 (2 FBS, 9 FCS)
Gardner-Webb – 10 (7 FBS, 3 FCS)
Tennessee State – 10 (1 FBS, 9 FCS)
Lindenwood – 7 (4 FBS, 3 FCS)
Names To Know
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Geno Hess, Southeast Missouri RB – To say graduate Hess is a veteran could be an understatement as he enters his sixth season running the rock for the Redhawks. Hess, who was a true freshman in 2018, has racked up distinctions since appearing in four games that ’18 season to retain freshman eligibility. The 2019 OVC All-Newcomer pick, 2020-21 HERO Sports Sophomore All-American, 2021 First-Team All-OVC selection, and 2022 OVC Male Athlete of the Year has 55 total touchdowns in his career, including his first two receiving scores last season. Hess, who has a compact and bruising frame at 5-8, 225, has set personal single-season rushing marks in two straight campaigns with 1,116 yards (2021) followed by 1,691 (2022).
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Ty French, Gardner-Webb DL – French is primed for a senior season that forces the attention of his new Big South-OVC opponents. The 6-3, 230 reigning Big South Defensive Player of the Year is known for his block-beating and exemplary pass rush, as he owns 25 career sacks and 38.5 tackles for loss from 2020 to 2022. The ’22 season was its own statement for French, featuring a Big South single-regular-season record 11.5 sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble.
TOP NFL PROSPECT: Narii Gaither, Gardner-Webb RB – Redshirt senior Gaither joins Hess in the top class of RBs in the newly formed association. Gaither is coming off his first 1,000-yard rushing season (1,119 in 2022). The exclamation point on that total is found in the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ first round playoff win, in which Gaither decimated Eastern Kentucky for 245 yards and two touchdowns. The monstrous output against EKU marked GWU’s greatest single-game rushing net in its Division I era (since 2000) and constituted Gaither’s sixth minimum-100-yard rushing game of 2022. That turns enough heads to more than justify Gaither’s name on the 2024 Shrine Bowl 1000. (To his equal credit, Geno Hess also appears on this scouting list–interchange our top offensive player and top NFL prospect picks as you please. They’re that good, and realignment has gifted us the duo in the same conference.)
HERO Sports’ Predicted Order of Finish
- Southeast Missouri
- UT Martin
- Tennessee State
- Eastern Illinois
- Tennessee Tech
- Charleston Southern
- Robert Morris
The Big South and OVC combine to create a neat 10-team picture in which we can delineate some tiers.
In examining the association’s top three in our P.O.O.F., any one of SEMO, GWU, or UT Martin winning the automatic bid would not be a surprise. These are the teams with the most proven pieces back and the most recent success. SEMO is a worthy solo favorite when one accounts for not only Hess, but also for Redhawks QB Paxton DeLaurent, a 2022 HERO Sports Sophomore All-American who earned OVC All-Newcomer recognition after joining SEMO from Central Methodist University.
UT Martin was a 2022 OVC co-champ, but was on the wrong side of the OVC’s tiebreaking coin toss for the AQ and missed out on an at-large bid. The Skyhawks return a half dozen players with All-OVC nods but replace QB Dresser Winn and WR Colton Dowell, both of whom are now in the NFL. That loss of production keeps UTM at No. 3, parked behind Gardner-Webb.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs, like UT Martin, have a quarterback to determine after the reliable Bailey Fisher’s expiration of eligibility. GWU has Florida State grad transfer Gino English and Coastal Carolina transfer Ty Lyles in the picture at the position to join 2022 primary backup (and Jacksonville State transfer) Matthew Caldwell, but Gaither is unmistakably the offensive centerpiece. However, perhaps that creates problems if defenses are able to key on Gaither excessively, furthering the case for SEMO at No. 1.
The Nos. 4-8 range of teams is more difficult to project. Bryant’s travel demands in its first and final season in the association are a consideration. The Smithfield, RI school is an outlier for both the Big South (its affiliation) footprint and the OVC region, which is something that could wear on the team. We’re expecting the CAA Football announcement by the Bulldogs to galvanize a squad that had near misses in 2022, such as a one-point overtime loss at FBS Florida International and one-possession defeats at Gardner-Webb and Holy Cross. The Bryant offense has one of the better passing and overall combos in the league in QB Zevi Eckhaus and WR Landon Ruggieri.
Among back-half teams in our projection, Eastern Illinois is a sleeper candidate. It added Georgetown grad transfer QB Pierce Holley (2nd Team All-Patriot League) to a roster that ranks behind only playoff participants SEMO and Gardner-Webb in all-conference returnees. We will see what the Panthers are made of in the heart of the season, when EIU must oppose UT Martin, SEMO, and Bryant in succession.
Lindenwood continues its Division I transition in 2023 with promising signs including multiple All-OVC OL back and several D1 transfers integrated to create additional roster competition of a D1 level. In 2022, the Lions won three straight FCS games when they took contests at Central Arkansas (52-49) and Eastern Illinois (37-34, 2OT) before beating Murray State 33-18.