FCS 2019: Ohio Valley Preview
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - The big picture shows Jacksonville State has been dominating in the Ohio Valley Conference, but a closer look suggests the Gamecocks should peak in the rear-view mirror.
Austin Peay, Murray State and Southeast Missouri have each enjoyed a breakthrough season in the last two years and longtime power Eastern Kentucky has regrouped nicely. Even talented, though inconsistent Tennessee State is always a threat of crashing Jacksonville State's party.
While the five-time defending champion Gamecocks are a clear favorite in the title race again - ranking an impressive No. 6 in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25 - the OVC figures to be challenging, maybe even unpredictable and certainly high-scoring. Only two of the nine teams allowed fewer than 30 points per game last season - Jacksonville State (24.8) and Eastern Kentucky (28.7)
Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 OVC race:
1. Jacksonville State
2. Southeast Missouri
3. Eastern Kentucky
4. Tennessee State
5. Murray State
6. Austin Peay
7. UT Martin
8. Eastern Illinois
9. Tennessee Tech
1. JACKSONVILLE STATE
LOCATION: Jacksonville, Alabama
STADIUM: JSU Stadium
HEAD COACH: John Grass (52-12, five seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 7-1 OVC (1st) - No. 10 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Zerrick Cooper, QB, Jr.; Jalen Greene, RB, Jr.; Josh Pearson, WR, Sr.; Jamari Hester, WR, Sr.; Trae Barry, TE, Jr.; Landon Rice, TE, Jr.; Darius Anderson, OG, Sr.; Hunter Sosebee, OT, Sr.; Jalen Choice, LB, Sr.; Zack Woodard, LB, So.; Marlon Bridges, S, Sr.; Traco Williams, S, Sr.; Yul Gowdy, CB, So.; Jacquez Payton, CB, Jr.; Josh Brady, LS, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: B.J. Autry, OL; Randy Robinson, DL; Connor Christian, DL
OUTLOOK: Even in a "down" season last year, the Gamecocks still captured a fifth straight OVC title, won an FCS playoff game and finished with a No. 10 ranking. With a senior-laden lineup this season, the expectations are even higher. Grass, who's lost only one conference game in five seasons, has the OVC's best offense, which a year ago averaged an even 40 points per game - seventh-best in the FCS. QB Cooper (an OVC-high 291.3 yards per game) will fire away to WRs Pearson (17 touchdowns) and Hester and TE Barry. S Bridges has made the All-OVC first team three times. The biggest concern is the team's losses on both lines of scrimmage. The Gamecocks have a fun nonconference schedule, including Eastern Washington on Sept. 14, leading into the OVC.
2. SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE
LOCATION: Cape Girardeau, Missouri
STADIUM: Houck Stadium
HEAD COACH: Tom Matukewicz (24-34, five seasons; 25-34 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 6-2 OVC (2nd) - No. 15 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (5 offense/10 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Daniel Santacaterina, QB, Sr.; Zion Custis, RB, So.; Mark Robinson, RB, Jr.; Kristian Wilkerson, WR, Sr.; Zack Smith, WR, Jr.; Elijah Swehla, OT, Sr.; Clarence Thornton, DT, Sr.; Ryan Ochoa, DT, Sr.; Zach Hall, ILB, Sr.; Justin Swift, OLB, Sr.; Omardrick Douglas, OLB, Jr.; D.J. Freeman, CB, Jr.; Al Young, CB, Sr.; Bydarrius Knighten, SS, Jr.; Taj Jenkins, FS, Sr.; Marcus Lucas, DB, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Marquis Terry, RB; Drew Forbes, OT; Demarcus Rogers, ILB
OUTLOOK: SEMO has never had back-to-back winning seasons on the FCS level, and that seems assured of happening this year. The Redhawks, though, want much more just one year after earning their first playoff win. The defense, which returns all but one starter, should lead the way after pacing the FCS in turnover margin and boasting LBs Hall, the 2018 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award recipient who had a national-high 168 tackles, and Swift (114 tackles, 15 tackles for loss). The offense was quite potent last season, but it graduated four starters on the offensive line and Terry, the OVC offensive player of the year. QB Santacaterina and WR Wilkerson will be the go-to option. The Redhawks ended Jacksonville State's 36-game OVC win streak last season, but this time they have to play in Alabama.
3. EASTERN KENTUCKY
LOCATION: Richmond, Kentucky
STADIUM: Roy Kidd Stadium
HEAD COACH: Mark Elder (14-19, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 5-2 (3rd)
PROJECTED STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Conor Blount, QB, R-Jr. (Oregon State transfer); Parker McKinney, QB, R-Fr.; Daryl McCleskey Jr., RB, Sr.; Jackson Beerman, WR, R-So.; B.K. Smith, Slot, Jr.; Jaelin Carter, WR, Jr.; Jackson Bardall, C, R-Jr.; Aaron Patrick, DE, R-Sr.; Elijah Taylor, DT, R-Sr.; Steven Crowder, LB, Jr.; Leodis Moore III, DB, R-Sr.; Ben Bascom, DB, R-Sr.; T.J. Comstock, DB, Sr.; Samuel Hayworth, PK, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Thomas Tabur, RG; Gavin Bryant, LB; Cornelius Floyd, DB
OUTLOOK: After ending last season with four straight wins, the Colonels are primed for OVC title contention while possibly reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They have one of the more experienced teams in the conference with 50 of the 61 players back from last year's season-ending two-deep. QB Blount started six games at Oregon State last year and may rate as a favorite over McKinney, who started the final two wins. RB McCleskey will help the offense to continue dominating in time of possession. DE Patrick and S Moore (five interceptions) will push the defense to an even higher level than a year ago. To be in contention for a playoff bid, they'll need to answer a tough road schedule.
4. TENNESSEE STATE
LOCATION: Nashville, Tennessee
STADIUM: LP Field and Hale Stadium
HEAD COACH: Rod Reed (53-47, nine seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-5 overall, 3-4 (5th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Demry Croft, QB, R-Sr.; Te'kendrick Roberson, RB, Sr.; Chris Rowland, WR/RS, Sr.; Steven Newbold, WR, Sr.; Thomas Burton, C/OG, Gr.; Raekwon Allen, RG, Sr.; Mekhi Brown, DE, R-Sr.; Rhashaun Epting, DE, R-Jr. (New Mexico transfer); Dante Ferguson Jr., DE, R-Sr.; Allen Daniels, DL, R-So. (Purdue transfer); Dominique Williams, CB, Sr. (Kentucky transfer); Dajour Nesbeth, CB, Sr.; Antonio Zita, PK, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: DeVon Johnson, WR/RS; Chidi Okeke, LT; LaQuarius Cook, FS
OUTLOOK: Who wasn't injured last season is a better question than who was injured - 28 players in only a nine-game season because of two weather cancellations. But the Tigers should be much-improved with a lot of returning talent this year. The offense seeks more explosive plays, and probably should get them with three experienced quarterbacks (Michael Hughes and Cameron Rosendahl are battling Croft), leading rusher Robinson and top receivers Rowland and Newbold. The defense can be tough against the run with a number of experienced linemen, and All-OVC CB Nesbeth seeks an All-America season. The Tigers have to survive back-to-back games against Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State to open their OVC schedule.
5. MURRAY STATE
LOCATION: Murray, Kentucky
STADIUM: Roy Stewart Stadium
HEAD COACH: Mitch Stewart (15-29, four seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 5-3 OVC (4th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Preston Rice, QB, R-So.; Justin Connor, RB, R-Jr.; Rodney Castille, RB, Jr.; Malik Honeycutt, WR/KR, Sr.; James Sappington, WR, Sr.; DaQuon Green, WR, Jr. (Florida transfer); Levi Nesler, OL, R-So.; Cam Carter, OL, Sr.; Tyrese Allen, DL, R-Fr. (West Virginia transfer); Terrance Corbett, LB, R-Jr. (Troy transfer); Anthony Koclanakis, LB, R-Jr.; Kendrick Catis, LB, Sr.; Don Parker, SS, Jr.; Gabriel Vicente, PK, Sr.; Steve Dawson, P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Drew Anderson, QB; Kenney Wooten, DL; Quincy Williams, LB
OUTLOOK: After last year's breakout season in the OVC, Stewart earned a three-year contract extension. How he is recruiting is starting to show off. The Racers could have a similar season as last year, but the defense has to overcome key losses. They are still determining if QB Rice, the backup to Anderson last season, will take over as the starter. D.J. Penick, last year's leading rusher, transferred from the program, but Conner, who's back from injury, and Castille can play tag-team with carries. The special teams are so good that the Racers swept OVC preseason honors with PK Vicente, P Dawson and return specialist Honeycutt.
6. AUSTIN PEAY
LOCATION: Clarksville, Tennessee
STADIUM: Governors Stadium
HEAD COACH: Mark Hudspeth (first season; 95-59 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 3-5 OVC (Tie/6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (6 offense/4 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jeremiah Oatsvall, QB, Jr.; JaVaughn Craig, QB, Sr.; Kentel Williams, RB, Sr.; DeAngelo Wilson, WR, Jr.; Baniko Harley, WR, Jr.; Kyle Anderton, LT, R-Sr.; Seth Johnson, OL, R-So.; Matthew Gayle, DE, R-Jr.; Pat Walker, LB, R-Sr.; Juantarius Bryant, S, R-Sr.; Erskine Francis, CB, R-Jr.; Trent Taylor, CB, Sr.; Isaiah Norman, S, R-So.; Kordell Jackson, NB, Jr.; Devin Stuart, P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: D.J. Montgomery, WR; Jaison Williams, DE; Gunnar Scholato, LB
OUTLOOK: Having coach Will Healy, who turned around the program, move on to Charlotte is a big loss, but the Governors attracted a proven winner in Hudspeth, who inherits a team which just two years ago went 8-4 overall and 7-1 in the OVC. Hudspeth should love what he has in the conference's top rushing attack with dual-threat QB Oatsvall and RB Williams, whom ranked third in the FCS in all-purpose yards per game (167.8). The offensive line is rebuilt, however, including LT Anderton returning from injury after playing in only four games. The big questions are on defense, which suffered a big loss when Williams, a two-time All-OVC first-team selection, moved on. S Bryant has 65 tackles in each of the past two seasons. The schedule appears to be too strong to be talking playoffs this season.
7. UT MARTIN
LOCATION: Martin, Tennessee
STADIUM: Graham Stadium
HEAD COACH: Jason Simpson (80-68, 13 seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 2-6 OVC (8th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Dresser Winn, QB, Jr.; Joe Hudson, QB, R-Sr.; Peyton Logan, RB/KR, Jr.; Jaimiee Bowe, RB, Gr.; Jaylon Moore, WR, R-Sr.; Rodney Williams, WR, Sr.; Terry Williams, WR/PR, Sr.; Julian Crutchfield, DE, R-Sr.; Austin Pickett, DT, Sr.; Wanya Moton, S, R-So.; DaVonte Maura, DB, Sr.; Cam Ordway, DB, Gr. (Ole Miss grad transfer); Ryan Courtright, PK, R-Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: LaDarius Galloway, RB; Kevin Prather, Jr., LB; James Gilleylen, LB
OUTLOOK: Last year's disappointing campaign caught everybody off guard because the Skyhawks had not finished below .500 in the OVC during Simpson's first 12 seasons. While the defense lost a ton in the two back units, it will be stout up front behind DE Crutchfield and DT Pickett, who both made the OVC preseason team. QB Winn is returning from a shoulder injury and remains backed by the mobile Hudson. A big season from Bowe will compensate for the loss of leading rusher Galloway, and WR Williams is coming off a 67-reception season. While the Skyhawks should be better than last season, the conference is too deep for a return to title contention.
8. EASTERN ILLINOIS
LOCATION: Charleston, Illinois
STADIUM: O'Brien Stadium
HEAD COACH: Adam Cushing (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 3-8 overall, 3-5 OVC (Tie/6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (3 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Harry Woodbery, QB, Jr.; Johnathan Brantley, QB, Sr.; Chris Walker, RB, Gr. (Cornell grad transfer); Matt Reyna, WR, Sr.; James Sheehan, TE, Sr.; Travis Buckwalter, OL, Jr.; Terrell Greer, DT, Sr.; Dominic Moore, DL, Fr.; Austin Johnson, DL, So.; Joe Caputo, LB, Sr.; Dytarious Johnson, LB, Jr.; Raymond Crittenden, S, Jr.; Edwyn Brown, S, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Isaiah Johnson, RB; Alexander Hollins, WR; Nick Bruno, PK/P
OUTLOOK: The Panthers have slumped to an accustomed spot in the OVC, but they took a big step with the hiring of Cushing, who spent the last 15 seasons at Northwestern. The offense will look so different with only three returning starters, but quarterback is a position of strength: Brantley and Woodbery combined for 27 touchdown passes last year and Scott Gilkey Jr. made five starts in 2017. Sheehan (50 receptions) is one of the better tight ends in the OVC. The Panthers allowed an alarming 40.5 points per game and must get more physical behind DT Greer's lead. The Panthers have to withstand a tough nonconference schedule heading into OVC play.
9. TENNESSEE TECH
LOCATION: Cookeville, Tennessee
STADIUM: Tucker Stadium
HEAD COACH: Dewayne Alexander (1-10, one season; 42-43 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 1-7 OVC (9th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Bailey Fisher, QB, So.; Andrew Goldsmith, RB, Sr.; David Gist, RB, So.; Justin Oden, WR, Fr.; Austin Hicks, WR, Sr.; Darrius Stafford, WR, Sr.; Seth Huner, WR, Sr.; Aderick Moore, LB, Sr.; Seth Carlisle, LB, So.; Deontay Wilson, DB, Sr.; Shannon Fayne, DB, Sr.; Haidar Zaidan, P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Josh Cunningham, WR; Josh Poplar, LB; Nick Madonia, PK
OUTLOOK: Alexander will continue to build with youth, and that movement is led by QB Fisher, the OVC's freshman of the year who averaged over 200 yards per game. Most of the offense returns, but there were key losses at wide receiver. The Golden Eagles were outscored by over 28 points per game, so the defense needs to take steps behind leading tackler Wilson (103). The Golden Eagles' surprising win over Murray State last season suggests what could be with the program, but in remaining a young team, they need to focus on improved execution and win totals.
Updated August 12, 2019