The Ohio Valley Conference may be up for grabs more so than any time in the past four years, but Jacksonville State is going to have to disagree with you a little bit there. The Gamecocks have a nice looking O-line and run game, even with stud OL Casey Dunn transferred up to Auburn and Eli Jenkins out of eligibility. And the defense? Stout looking, again. But Tennessee State and UT Martin both won 7 games last year and look even better this year, and one if not both of them seem likely to make the postseason. But can they supplant the Gamecocks? And don't discount Eastern Illinois either after they looked like a playoff team for much of last year and finished with a winning record.
The truth is, this may be one of the more entertaining OVC in-conference seasons since 2011, when three teams tied for first.
Tennessee State's Ebenezer Ogundeko (1) is a terror on the defensive line (TSU Athletics)
NAMES TO KNOW
THE NFL PROSPECT: Ebenezer Ogundeko, DL, Tennessee State
This former Clemson player is rated the No. 11 defensive end for the 2018 draft. About 20 D-ends get drafted each year.
THE VETERAN COACH: Jason Simpson, UT Martin
In 11 seasons, Simpson's Skyhawks teams have won 72 ballgames and been consistently strong. They look very strong this year.
TOP PASSER: Troy Cook, UT Martin
Former Florida State QB threw for 2,321 yards and 22 touchdowns last year.
TOP RUSHER: Roc Thomas, Jacksonville State
In a loaded backfield last year, former Auburn RB finished with 782 yards and 7 TDs for Gamecocks.
TOP RECEIVER: Jordan Gandy, Murray State
Caught 62 passes for 976 yards and 11 scores for the Racers.
TOP TACKLER: Gunnar Scholato, Austin Peay
A top 10 tackler nationally last year, he finished with 123 stops in 2016.
TOP SACK MAN: Darius Jackson, Jacksonville State
A top 20 sack man last year nationally, he finished with 10 from his LB position.
BOUNCE BACK ARTIST: Mitch Kimble, QB, Eastern Illinois
Prior Syracuse player missed four games last year for EIU due to injuries. Watch out if he gets a full season.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Treon Harris, QB, Tennessee State
The former Florida Gator quarterback threw for nearly 2,700 yards and 18 TDs in the SEC.
Jacksonville State – With nearly 18,000 per game showing up, the Gamecocks have developed quite the following.
DID YOU KNOW?
Eastern Kentucky has won two FCS national championships and 21 conference titles. No other FCS program has won at least two national titles and 20 or more conference titles. The Colonels continue to rebuild the program under Mark Elder, who was on Butch Jones' staff at Tennessee prior to coming to EKU. Keep an eye on this program. With new facilities, some notable transfers (Arizona State RB Jason Lewis & Louisville RB L.J. Scott) and some very strong recruiting the past two springs, this is a FCS program on the rise — and it wants to get back to its success of the past.
This might be the year of the quarterback in the OVC, and that's even with highly successful QB Eli Jenkins' departure from Jacksonville State. Many of the strongest candidates are recent or past transfers from FBS schools, like UT-Martin's Troy Cook (Florida State), Tennessee State's Treon Harris (Florida), Eastern Illinois' Mitch Kimble (Syracuse), Murray State's Shuler Bentley (Old Dominion) and Eastern Kentucky's Garrett Kruczek (UCF). Who is going to win the passing title in the OVC this year? Good luck figuring that out.
Tennessee State. The Tigers won seven games last year and look even better than they did a year ago. They're loaded with starters back (17) and get former two-year Florida Gator starter Treon Harris at quarterback. Could this be the year Jacksonville State gets pushed? We're thinking so — whether it's the Tigers or UT Martin or one of the other programs that had solid 2016 campaigns.[divider]
Jacksonville State hasn't had an OVC blemish on its record since 2013 when Jimmy Garoppolo was plying his trade in the conference for Eastern Illinois, not for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Last year, SEMO came close to knocking off Jacksonville State, as UT Martin did in 2015 and Tennessee State did in 2014, but the Gamecocks have been untouchable — with their only regular season losses in three years being to Auburn in overtime, and LSU and Michigan State. With Eli Jenkins and several other top JSU players gone, could there be a chance for a strong defensive team like UT Martin, or Tennessee State or another program to rise up? Certainly. But my guess is Vegas would still go with JSU as the favorite here.
Jacksonville State's Darius Jackson was picked as the OVC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year (JSU Athletics)
FCS PREVIEWS CONFERENCE BY CONFERENCE
Aug. 15 – The Northeast Conference and The Patriot League
Aug. 16 – Big South and Southern Conference
Aug. 17 – Ohio Valley and Southland
Aug. 18 – Ivy League and Pioneer League
Aug. 21 – CAA
Aug. 22 – SWAC and MEAC
Aug. 23 – Missouri Valley and Big Sky