Welcome to the 2020 FCS summer preview series.
Every week will be dedicated to a conference as we break down the top teams, top players and what you need to know about the league heading into the season. We’ll have standings predictions, preseason All-Conference teams, top players to keep an eye on, podcasts and more.
This week, we have the …
Ohio Valley Conference
For a more in-depth look at the conference, check out the new episodes of B-Mac and Herd’s FCS Podcast coming this week.
THE FAVORITE: Austin Peay — Did I just type this? Yes. The Govs won a school-record 11 games last year, had a Top 20 offense, had a Top 20 defense … but wait a minute? The Govs don’t have QB JaVaughn Craig, the catalyst of that incredible playoff run last year, right?
Well, when it comes to the depth chart of an FCS program? Usually losing your stud QB is an insurmountable problem that may take a few years to overcome. But the FCS Nation might just forget that Jeremiah Oatsvall was the QB at APSU from 2017 onwards, and he was injured early on last year and JaVaughn stepped in and crushed things like nobody’s business — and both are very, very good. Craig and Oatsvall have been two of the biggest reasons … and there are many … that APSU has gone from the program that won one total game from 2013-2016 (yes, you read that correctly) … to the program that has won 24 games in the three seasons since.
It started with Will Healy and his staff busting a 29-game losing streak in early 2017, and proven winner Mark Hudspeth has taken this a step further. Both gentlemen and their staffs … and their current players … should take a bow. There’s a reason this program is No. 13 in our HERO Sports FCS Top 25 after decades of never being in polls (paging the 1970s, when APSU last won a title). Good things are going on here. Maybe not every single top player has returned for 2020, but this is a winning culture now, not just a bright comet coming by every 75 years.
THE THREATS: Jacksonville State, SEMO, Tenn. Tech, UT Martin — In the crazy OVC of the past two seasons, you can’t just put Jacksonville State at the top of the preseason rankings and ignore what’s going on underneath. If you do that? You’ll look like a fool. JSU for years (since Jimmy Garoppolo’s departure from Eastern Illlinois after 2013) was the lead-pipe lock as an OVC favorite, and rightfully so. The Gamecocks beat Ole Miss in 2010, scared the heck out of Auburn in OT in 2015 … and JSU made it to Frisco for the FCS national title game in 2015. Think this program doesn’t have that potential? Feel free … but it has that potential.
So put Jacksonville State as the numero uno scary threat. QB Zerrick Cooper is a talent that Clemson’s Dabo Swinney once recruited, and the Gamecocks have a ton more talent to go along with it … but let’s not forget about the program that squeezes orange juice out of orange seeds … Tennessee-Martin. This program has been .500 or better in 7 out of the past 8 seasons. Offensively? The Skyhawks are mega-intact and may be as stout as they’ve ever been. Tennessee Tech has also shown signs of brilliance offensively and if the Golden Eagles solidify the defense? Watch out.
And SEMO? Coach Tuke has taken this program to prominence in just a few short years and it is a legitimate threat to the OVC. Yes, some key personnel has turned over with the Redhawks, but that hasn’t hurt this program before. The truth is? This is not the JSU show and “who else” that we saw in the middle of the decade. Cough it up to parity or whatever, things have changed, Mox. We know FCS fans are sick of us bringing up this “parity” word … but 2020 may be the year of it, in many conferences.
THE DARK HORSE: Eastern Kentucky — Look, I’m going to be abundantly blunt here … who fires their coach after two straight 7-win seasons with 15-plus starters back in 2020? This isn’t Walt Wells’ fault, the new coach at EKU. He didn’t make this decision, and I don’t think there’s any question given his background that he will flourish in this situation. But let’s just give credit to former coach Mark Elder if things go well here, just like we’ve done with Will Healy for setting the table for an uptick at Austin Peay. There is major potential here in 2020 with EKU. This is a great program, historically.
BEST OFFENSE: Austin Peay — This offense scored 518 points last year and blitzed a Big Sky firepower in California (Sacramento State) in the playoffs. And there are some key cogs back from that unit. Granted, other OVC offenses could get rolling but until they do something to prove the Governors aren’t the top dog? Prove it.
BEST DEFENSE: Toss-up — Could it be Austin Peay, who had a Top 15 defense last year (20.6 points per game)? Could it be SEMO, who had the No. 1 tackle machine in the FCS the past two seasons (Zach Hall) and has become an FCS mainstay power? Or could it be EKU, which statistically held opponents to 22 points per game last year and returns a massive contingent in general? The truth is? Who knows?
THE TRUTH: Remember when Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech were foregone conclusions? When if you were an OVC opponent you could just put those two wins on the record before you ever played the game? Such great memories, right OVC? Well, welcome to 2020. If you sleep on these two programs, or any problem (paging Tennessee State)? You’ll pay for it and probably will be missing a few teeth afterward. The OVC is not a one Gamecock town anymore, just ask Jacksonville State.
WHAT ELSE?: Austin Peay and SEMO were co-champs in 2019 … but at the same time? I feel like I keep spinning a broken record here, but what is the easy summary of this conference? It wasn’t long ago that it was Jacksonville State and … who is next? Last season proved that several programs have caught up with Jacksonville State. But … there’s still no question how talented this JSU program is … how pissed off it is that it hasn’t gone 8-0 in the OVC in a few years … and how its fired-up fan base could help a talented program jump back into a fray it hasn’t really been in (OVC Title wise) in awhile.
We did talk about Eastern Kentucky, and the Colonels won 7 last year … but the Colonels fell to APSU and SEMO late, and a pivotal non-conference game against Indiana State was close. How good can EKU be? And if you ever ignore Tennessee State? You’ll regret it. The Tigers are always the wildcard when it comes to getting that “key win” but they also seem to slip up at least once against a team you’d think they’d hammer.
Names To Know
THE NFL PROSPECT: Trae Barry, Jacksonville State TE — The OVC has several talented prospects, but Barry at 6-foot-7 and an athletic offensive weapon? Yeah, he’s going to turn some heads this year. When it comes to top small-school targets at the FCS level in the OVC? Barry tops the chart. A former freshman and sophomore HERO Sports All-American, he’s hardly an unknown quantity.
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: DeAngelo Wilson, Austin Peay WR/PR — One of the nation’s top receiving talents caught 89 passes for 1,564 yards and 15 touchdowns, truly coming alive during the Governors’ postseason run.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Kordell Jackson, Austin Peay DB — One of the nation’s top DBs last year, this HERO Sports First Team All-American intercepted seven passes, took two back for touchdowns, broke up 10 other passes and also posted 47 tackles and 8 tackles for loss.
Most Returning All-Conference/HERO Sports All-American Players From 2019
Any returning player that had a 2019 on-field honor from their conference counts toward their team total, including honorable mentions and All-Newcomer Teams.
7- Austin Peay
6- Jacksonville State
5- UT Martin
4- Tennessee Tech