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.
THE REASONING: Austin Peay at No. 1. Can you believe it? But why not?
The Govs won 11 games last year after never having won 9 in a program lifespan that dates back to before President FDR and the TVA — 1930, to be exact. They seem like a program in reload mode and … imagine this … the Govs have some swagger. Truly, they do, and rightfully so. So who’s going to play quarterback with an incredible talent like JaVaughn Craig gone? Well, to start with, Jeremiah Oatsvall (3,000 career passing yards, 1,000 rushing — 42 TDs responsible for) started for two-plus years and he and Craig were the two-headed monster at the signal caller position for the Govs prior to Oatsvall’s injury early last year. Craig exploded after that. Oatsvall is a nice starting point, but I’m guessing even a talent like JO isn’t guaranteed anything in this program.
And what about RB with a stud like Kentel Williams gone? Well, did we forget Ahmaad Tanner (1,445 career rushing yards, 14 TDs) actually led APSU in rushing as a freshman in the groundbreaking year of 2017, when this team ended the 29-game losing streak? There are weapons on offense (paging DeAngelo Wilson), there is serious talent up front with the AP Hawgs … there is talent on defense too (hello Josephus, Jack and Kordell – et al). This is an energized, well-coached program … one of the best college football stories of bounceback in decades.
The Ohio Valley Conference is screaming to break out of this second-tier situation in terms of how it is viewed within the FCS ranks. There’s no question the top three conferences for the past decade or so have been the MVFC, CAA and Big Sky, but APSU put a major dent in that last year when it went all the way to Sacramento State in the playoffs and laid a grand thumping down on a very good Big Sky team, up 28-0 in the middle of the third quarter. The OVC has the potential for the kind of upper-tier parity to bust through that ceiling like no other conference outside the “Big Three” has had since the SoCon lost App. State and Ga. Southern to the FBS almost a decade ago. Once moribund programs like Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech are now dangerous, and they resent the old “homecoming fodder” mantra. Jacksonville State’s dominant program of much of the past decade seems primed for a massive rebound after an uncharacteristic 6-6 campaign, but how massive? How much will the OVC allow it to rebound? UT Martin has always been stout … the ever-moving-forward OVC worker-bee program that will just not quit and is good for about 7 wins a year, but could this be Jason Simpson’s best team ever? There are signs it may be, especially offensively.
SEMO has won 18 games the past two years combined. With 14 starters back? If you schedule the Redhawks for Homecoming, you need to get your head checked … and as we say frequently, get that proverbial FCS Tylenol. Eastern Kentucky on paper looks as dangerous as it has in the past decade, but how will the Colonels handle a change at the top? Keep an eye on EKU … this may be a Top 25 program if the chips fall in good places. The talent is here, and if the chemistry goes with it? Watch out. Tennessee Tech returns a stud at QB, offensive playmakers abound … and if the Golden Eagles tighten up on defense? They can play with any of the aforementioned teams. They proved that last year.
See what I’m saying when it comes to parity?
With the three teams we put at the bottom of the ranking below … one thing we’ve learned about them is, if you take a day off? Well, you’ll lose.
Now, that’s at least the theoretical “truth” with all of football, right? But does anybody really believe it? Did people really believe thatin the OVC when Austin Peay was mired in a 29-game losing streak coming into week three of 2017, or when Tennessee Tech had gone 2-20 combined in 2017-18? Well you’d better not ignore it now. Tennessee State, last year’s 3-9 team? Welcome to the team that aced 11-win Austin Peay in Nashville at Nissan Stadium last year … oh, and also was up on the SEC’s Vanderbilt in the 4th quarter before a long TD pass. But? On the flip side … the Tigers also allowed 1-11 Eastern Illinois to pick up its lone win in 2019, also in Nashville. And yes, EIU did go 1-11, but played stiff defense at times in 2019 and has recruited well under Adam Cushing. Will that translate to 2020? Time will tell of course. And Murray State is rebuilding with a new staff, but its veteran players know what it’s like to take recent OVC playoff qualifiers like SEMO and Jacksonville State to the wire, as they did last year.
So … enjoy, OVC fans. This isn’t the “Jacksonville State and Who Else?” show it was just a few years ago. Yes, the Gamecocks could very well be atop of the OVC Mountain by the end of 2020, but it’s going to be as tough a climb as it’s been since 2013 when Eastern Illinois had Jimmy Garoppolo. That’s our prediction.
NOTE: These rankings are a prediction of what the standings will look like at the end of the season. It is the opinion of the author of this story and may differ from the order of our staff’s Top 25 FCS rankings. Conference schedules are taken into consideration.
I began covering the FCS for HERO Sports in the Summer of 2015 and it was love at first sight. It was the perfect blend of two previous career stops -- the approachability and grounded nature of being around high school athletics combined with the high-end talent and impressive fan bases of big-time college football. After stops in the newspaper world and The Sporting News and PARADE Magazine, I'm happy to be here as HERO Sports' FCS Coordinator.