Jacksonville State is over the hump. It’s time to see if other Ohio Valley Conference football teams can make a bigger leap, too.
While the FCS playoff drought is long gone with the OVC — the conference didn’t win a postseason game from 2000 to 2012 — much of the recent success has come courtesy of Jacksonville State.
The two-time defending OVC champion Gamecocks took it to a higher level last season when they were top-ranked for much of the regular season and had a playoff run to the FCS national championship game before they fell to North Dakota State.
With the 2016 FCS college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions surrounding the OVC:
1. Has Jacksonville State overcome its senior losses?
Jacksonville State is replacing eight seniors that earned All-OVC first-team honors, and that doesn’t even include defensive tackle Devaunte Sigler, who was the conference’s 2014 defensive player of the year, and defensive end LaMichael Fanning, a standout who was injured last season but is out of eligibility. The Gamecocks' offense will stay potent with quarterback Eli Jenkins and wide receiver Josh Barge leading the way. Plus, third-year head coach John Grass went heavy on the FBS transfers to fill some of the holes. The offense got running back Roc Thomas (Auburn), wide receiver Kevin Spears (LSU) and tight end Jonathan Curry (Purdue), while cornerbacks Al Harris Jr. (South Carolina) and Tramel Terry (Georgia), who must first rehab an injury knee, will help the defense. That’s called reloading.
2. Can the champion be anybody but Jacksonville State?
Eastern Illinois finished one game behind Jacksonville State in the standings last year, but, oh, did the margin seem bigger. The Gamecocks are 16-0 in OVC games under Grass and none of the other top programs probably have enough to slow them down. UT Martin lost six starters on defense, Eastern Illinois lost seven and Eastern Kentucky lost eight. EKU, under first-year head coach Mark Elder, might have the best chance as the only one of the trio to be playing Jacksonville State at home.
3. Is the best quarterback in the FCS necessarily the best in the OVC?
Last season, the dual-threat playmaker Jenkins was the OVC’s offensive player of the year and earned first-team All-America honors as a junior, totaling 3,949 yards (2,788 passing, 1,161 rushing) and 36 touchdowns (21 passing, 15 rushing). But he had company in the OVC right over his shoulder. In 11 games, Murray State’s KD Humphries led the FCS in passing yards (3,778), completions (330) and attempts (532) and was second in total offense per game (348.3 yards). Add in emerging Bennie Coney of Eastern Kentucky and the OVC has top returning signal-callers.
Related: 10 FCS Quarterbacks to Watch in 2016
4. Who’s going to play defense?
The OVC has usually been an offensive conference, but the offensive coaches and players are going to like this fact: Only one player who made the all-conference first-team defense is back this season –— Tennessee State defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko. Southeast Missouri State returns standout linebacker Roper Garrett and Jacksonville State will feature the tandem of defensive end Darius Jackson and linebacker Joel McCandless. But clearly some new standouts have to emerge this season.
5. Who are the NFL prospects?
The OVC doesn’t have a talent like Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, a junior-eligible player who was a second-round NFL Draft choice this past April. Among this year’s senior prospects, defending champion Jacksonville State boasts reliable receiver Barge (6-1, 178) and All-America center Casey Dunn (6-3, 285). Both need to put on quality weight before next April. Tennessee State is always stocked with linemen, and offensive guard Jessamen Dunker (6-5, 290), a fourth-year starter who spent a redshirt season at Florida in 2012, will be getting the long look this season.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Jacksonville State Athletics)