By Ryan Alves
With football season right around the corner, I can’t hide my excitement for Saturdays in the fall.
And this season, in the Ohio Valley Conference, things are looking up for yet another nail-biter.
Last season, we saw just how much preseason rankings mattered when Southeast Missouri won the OVC after being picked to finish seventh before we even had a kick-off.
Some experts they were.
So this season, I’m throwing out the official rankings and giving my gut feelings on the OVC.
Jacksonville State University is the clear-cut favorite to win the OVC once again.
The Gamecocks return 51 letterwinners and 13 starters from a team that made the FCS playoffs last season. Senior defensive linemen Monte Lewis was a force in the middle last season racking up 37 tackles and three sacks in 12 games. He’s backed up by senior linebacker Rodney Garrott and junior defensive back Keginald Harris. Garrott registered 61 tackles last season and Harris led the team with five interceptions.
Offensively, senior quarterback Marques Ivory returns after 2,248 passing yards and 18 touchdowns last season, but the biggest offensive factor may be Univeristy of Georgia Bulldogs running back transfer Washaun Ealey. Ealey brings 1,528 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns against SEC defenses to an already potent offense that scored 32 points a game last season. Look for Ealey to easily make a run for OVC Player of the Year, and for the Gamecocks to finish at the top this season.
In severe contrast to the preseason polls, I’m not buying the hype of Murray State. So I look for Eastern to finish second this season and make a run for the title and another post-season birth.
The main reason being defense wins championships. And I think the Colonels will have yet again one of the strongest defenses in the league this year. They return several key starters from last year’s squad and have probably the most dynamic defensive player in the conference at cornerback – Jeremy Caldwell. And even with a new coordinator calling in the plays, I honestly think Eastern’s defense will leave off where they started – dominating the run and holding opponents to low scoring.
Offensively, it never hurts to have a weapon like junior quarterback T.J. Pryor. Pryor is about to break all kinds of Eastern quarterback records, and even though the Colonels want to put a heavier emphasis on the run, don’t think Pryor isn’t capable of taking off and gashing defenses like last year. Eastern did suffer a hit when Orlandus Harris was injured in the spring but they added two junior college transfers in Jeremiah Williams and Cam Bailey, who both are already proving to be threats. Also every running back returns, and the offensive line may be head coach Dean Hood’s most experienced ever, with four starters returning from last season. If Eastern can get off to even a decent start, I like their chances.
Third is where I’m taking Murray State. Yes, the Racers have the “Hatch Attack” (named for Head Coach Chris Hatcher’s high-powered offense), do-it-all quarterback Casey Brockman back from last year’s stellar season and return Mike Harris at running back, but I’m not convinced the spread offense will sustain itself after losing their all-American receiver in Marcus Harris.
And I’m not sold on their defense just quite yet. Last season they didn’t crack the top five in any defensive category, and lost several key seniors on that side of the ball.
They do however return cornerback/return specialist Dontrell Johnson, who earned All-OVC honors at both positions last year. Johnson, a senior, is a threat to take any punt back to the house, and led the nation with 22.8 yards a return last year.
In fourth place is where I’m putting Southeast Missouri, the defending champions. It’s hard to pull off a repeat in college football, and things aren’t any different for Head Coach Tony Samuel, who won the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award last season. The Redhawks will have to replace last year’s OVC Offensive Player of the Year, running back Henry Harris and three first-team All-OVC offensive linemen, which wont be an easy task.
But they do return senior quarterback Matt Scheible who was the first-team All-OVC pick at quarterback last year after completing 59.9 percent of his passes for 1,246 yards and eight touchdowns and rushing for 884 yards and seven more scores. Defensively the team returns junior defensive back Tylor Brock who ranked 16th nationally in interceptions/game, picking off six total passes. But don’t be surprised if the Redhawks prove everyone wrong again.
Fifth place goes to UT Martin and Head Coach Jason Simpson, who enters his sixth season with the Skyhawks. UTM has never had a losing season in OVC play under Simpson, who won the OVC Championship in his first season with the program (2006) and was 6-5 overall and 5-3 in league play last year. I don’t expect this to be their first.
Simpson will look to junior quarterback Derek Carr to lead the offense once again this season; last season Carr threw for an OVC-best 2,543 yards while also tossing 13 touchdowns in 11 games. Carr has a variety of offensive weapons at his disposal including wide receiver Stephen Shiver, running back Jason McNair and preseason All-OVC pick at tight end Kenny Jones. The team also returns preseason All-OVC defensive back Kendal Harper who had 42 tackles and three interceptions last year.
In sixth I’m taking Tennessee Tech, who finished 5-6 overall last season. Head Coach Watson Brown has 21 starters returning, including senior wide receiver Tim Benford. Benford is just six receptions away (151) to crack the OVC career top 10 list. Senior teammate Scott Schweitzer was also a preseason All-OVC selection this season, earning the no
d at offensive guard. Defensive linebacker Marcus Edwards returns after registering an OVC-best 7.5 sacks last season.
Seventh goes to Eastern Illinois. The 2011 season will mark the final season for long-time coach Bob Spoo, who has coached for 25 years. Last season the team was 2-9 overall and 2-6 in the OVC. Spoo is going to utilize a spread offensive attack that includes nine returning offensive starters. Senior offensive guard Eric Zink was named to the Preseason All-OVC team while junior defensive lineman Artavious Dowdell also returns.
Tennessee State, who was winless in OVC play under first-year head coach Rod Reed last season, gets in at No. 8. The team returns OVC Preseason Co-Defensive Player of the Year in senior linebacker Rico Council, who tallied 79 tackles, 6.0 tackles-for-loss and 4.0 sacks last season. He is one of six TSU defensive starters returning this year. Offensive senior running back Dante’ Thomas was a Preseason All-OVC selection after rushing for 793 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Last but not least we have Austin Peay. Head Coach Rick Christophel’s Govs return 47 letterwinners back from his team, which finished 2-9 overall and 1-7 in the OVC. Among those are two Preseason All-OVC selections in running back Ryan White and offensive center Tim Schmid. White, a first-team All-OVC selection in 2009, carried the ball 156 times for 769 yards and four touchdowns last season.