This just may be the year for the defenses in what has long been an offensive Ohio Valley Conference.
There’s plenty of offenses that are retooling and that includes three-time defending champion Jacksonville State.
The Gamecocks were the only team to qualify for the FCS playoffs last year, but there are challengers to the throne this time around.
With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the OVC:
Did anybody say Jacksonville State won’t repeat?
Although possible, it seems unlikely considering Jacksonville State has posted three straight unbeaten OVC records, but the Gamecocks’ offense may take a slight step backward with the loss of quarterback Eli Jenkins and wide receiver Josh Barge, perhaps the best to play those positions in school history. Their defense should be strong, however. In conference play, two of their tougher games are on the road, Eastern Illinois and UT Martin, and Tennessee State, which has 18 returning starters, believes it can make a run at the title.
How do the quarterbacks rank?
It’s not a season of big-time returning quarterbacks, with five of the nine teams replacing last year’s starter. In addition to Jenkins at Jacksonville State, Murray State KD Humphries is a big loss for the conference. Eastern Illinois’ Mitch Kimble and UT Martin’s Troy Cook are the best of the returnees, but Tennessee State appears ready as it turns the offense over to Florida transfer Treon Harris.
Which Tennessee team is best?
After Jacksonville State, the second- (UT Martin), third- (Tennessee Tech) and fourth-place (Tennessee State) finishers were Tennessee teams last season. They forged the first-ever three-way share of the Sgt. York Trophy, which goes to the top finisher among the four Tennessee schools in the OVC (struggling Austin Peay is the other program), but UT Martin retained the trophy for the third straight season. In a clear edge this season, Tennessee Tech gets to play all three rivals at home.
How can Eastern Kentucky get back on track?
Head coach Mark Elder’s first season did not go well at Eastern Kentucky, which finished 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the conference – only the Colonels’ second losing season since 1973. They return 13 starters (six on offense and seven on defense) with key positional battles waged on the offensive and defensive lines during spring practice. Tim Boyle, a UConn transfer, is expected to lead the offense. The 21-time OVC champ should be improved, but it won’t be enough to contend for another title.
Who are the NFL prospects?
A late-season injury ended Ebenezer Ogundeko’s junior campaign early, but the 6-foot-3, 255-pound defensive end from Tennessee State returns to create havoc as a senior. Other key OVC players who will get looks for the next level are Jacksonville State’s Justin Lea (6-4, 290), an offensive guard, and Roc Thomas (5-11, 195), a running back. There also are UT Martin safety Khalid Hagens (6-3, 200) and Tennessee State placekicker Lane Clark (5-11, 170).
— 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 University Athletics)