2017 OVC Season Preview

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - The Jacksonville State seniors who played the last three seasons have not lost to an Ohio Valley Conference opponent - their team's conference winning streak stretching to 24 games since 2013.

It's the longest in Division I, and the seniors have every plan to finish their careers with the streak intact.

"It would mean more to the school, but it would definitely mean a lot to me knowing that we just put the grind in and nobody in the conference would beat us," said defensive end Darius Jackson, the OVC's 2016 defensive player of the year.

"It's something that we really just don't talk about that much. When you sit down and think, 'Wow, we haven't lost in conference,' it's kind of surreal how it's happened like that," All-America offensive lineman Justin Lea said. "That would be a great accomplishment to finish out this year - a fourth-time OVC champion and winning four years' straight in conference games. It's something to be proud of."

Not surprisingly, Jacksonville State is favored to win a fourth straight OVC title, but UT Martin and Tennessee State return strong teams that will take their shot at the Gamecocks in November.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2017 OVC race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Jacksonville State

2. UT Martin

3. Tennessee State

4. Eastern Illinois

5. Tennessee Tech

6. Murray State

7. Eastern Kentucky

8. Southeast Missouri

9. Austin Peay

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. JACKSONVILLE STATE GAMECOCKS

LOCATION: Jacksonville, Alabama

STADIUM: JSU Stadium

COACH: John Grass (33-6, three seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 10-2, 7-0 OVC (1st); No. 7 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (4 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Eli Jenkins, QB; Josh Barge, WR; Casey Dunn, C

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Roc Thomas, RB, Sr. (127 carries, 782 yards, 7 TD; 16 receptions, 173 yards, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Darius Jackson, DE, Sr. (48 TT, 15.5 TFL, 10 Sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Bryant Horn, QB, Jr.; Kendrick Doss, QB, R-Jr.; Tramel Terry, RB, Jr.; Krenwick Sanders, WR, Jr.; Jamari Hester, WR, So.; Justin Lea, LG, Sr.; Dylan Cline, RT, Sr.; Nuka Yobo, LT, R-Fr.; Randy Robinson, NT, Jr.; Dalton Campbell, DE, Sr.; Quan Stoudemire, MLB, Jr.; Joel McCandless, WLB, Sr.; Marlon Bridges, FS, So.; Siran Neal, CB, Sr.; Reggie Hall, CB/KR, Sr.; Cade Stinnett, PK, R-Jr.

OUTLOOK: The only losses in Grass' three seasons have come against FBS opponents and in the FCS playoffs, but his Gamecocks have a lot to prove after losing their first playoff game for the second time in three seasons. Without Jenkins, a 3 1/2-year starter, guiding the offense, the Gamecocks won't be as explosive. Horn, the backup last season, seeks to avoid mistakes and play with efficiency. The Gamecocks also are replacing Barge, their all-time leading receiver, and figure to be run-first with Thomas. The veteran defense ranked fourth in the FCS last season and should be among the nation's best, led by the conference's defensive player of the year (Jackson) and freshman of the year (Bridges). The regular season schedule is difficult on both the front and back ends.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 26, Chattanooga (at Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama)

Sept. 9, at Georgia Tech

Sept. 23, Liberty

Sept. 30, at Tennessee Tech*

Oct. 7, at Austin Peay*

Oct. 14, Eastern Kentucky*

Oct. 21, at Eastern Illinois*

Oct. 28, Southeast Missouri State*

Nov. 4, Murray State*

Nov. 11, at UT Martin*

Nov. 16, Tennessee State*

* - OVC game

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2. UT MARTIN SKYHAWKS

LOCATION: Martin, Tennessee

STADIUM: Graham Stadium

COACH: Jason Simpson (72-54, 11 seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 7-5, 6-2 OVC (2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Kenneth Crenshaw, C; Damani Taylor, DL; Keith Jones, DL

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jaimiee Bowe, RB, Jr. (181 carries, 747 yards, 7 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Kahlid Hagens, S, R-Sr. (93 TT, 4 INT, 5 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Troy Cook, QB, R-Sr.; Ladarius Galloway, RB, Jr. (JUCO transfer); Londell Lee, WR/RS, Sr.; Caylon Weathers, WR, R-Sr.; Robert Burleigh, RG, R-Sr.; Nick Thomas, C, Jr. (Memphis transfer); Kadarren Bond, LT, R-Sr.; Austin Newsom, LG, R-So.; Jay Murphy, NT, Sr.; Kevin Prather Jr., LB, Jr.; James Gilleylen, LB, R-Jr.; Tae Martin, S, R-Sr.; Joseph Este, S, Sr.; Justin Jackson, CB, R-Sr.

OUTLOOK: The Skyhawks had the chance to win the OVC title and secure an FCS playoff bid before they lost to Jacksonville State in their final game last season. A season after going 5-0 at home, they will host Jacksonville State in a pivotal matchup Nov. 11. Their offense features Cook, the OVC's preseason all-conference quarterback, while Hagens is an All-America candidate on the back end of the defense. With a strong offensive line, Cook will be able to exploit defenses with Bowe, Lee and Weathers. While the Skyhawks are replacing two starters on the defensive line, their defense returns seven starters after ranking second in the conference a year ago. Transfers usually make an impact for Simpson, the dean of OVC head coaches.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Clarion

Sept. 9, at Ole Miss

Sept. 16, at Chattanooga

Sept. 23, Tennessee State*

Sept. 30, at Austin Peay*

Oct. 7, Murray State*

Oct. 21, at Eastern Kentucky*

Oct. 28, Eastern Illinois*

Nov. 4, at Southeast Missouri*

Nov. 11, Jacksonville State*

Nov. 18, at Tennessee Tech*

* - OVC game

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3. TENNESSEE STATE TIGERS

LOCATION: Nashville, Tennessee

STADIUM: LP Field and Hale Stadium

COACH: Rod Reed (43-37, seven seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 7-4, 4-3 OVC (4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Ronald Butler, QB; Jessamen Dunker, LT; Ezra Robinson, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Patrick Smith, WR, R-Sr. (61 receptions, 966 yards, 13 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Ebenezer "Ebo" Ogundeko, DE, R-Sr. (48 TT, 11 TFL, 5.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 5 QBH, 2 FR, 1 FF, 1 BK in nine games)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Treon Harris, QB, R-Jr. (Florida transfer); Earl Harrison, RB, So.; Arkeem Granger, RB, R-So.; Steven Newbold, WR, So.; Chris Rowland, WR/RS, So.; Thomas Burton, C, R-Jr.; Jamahl Jelks, LG, So.; Justin Brooks, RT, R-Jr.; Chidi Okeke, LT, So. (LSU transfer); Chris Collins, LB, Sr.; Justin North, LB, R-Sr.; Terrell Bonds, CB, Sr.; Laquarius Cook, S, R-Jr.; Trevion Duncan, S, R-So.; Lane Clark, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Make no mistake, the Tigers expect to win the OVC title. They feature some of the best offensive skill players in the conference and perhaps its best NFL prospect in Ogundeko, who was hampered by injuries last season. Harris, the former Florida quarterback who started the 2015 SEC Championship Game, will be a breakout player as he works with the dominant receiving duo of Smith and Newbold. Harrison came on late last season and seeks to replace leading rusher Erick Evans. Much of the defensive front returns, but the unit has to surrender fewer than 30 points per game. The season opener offers a winning opportunity against an FBS opponent, Georgia State.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at Georgia State

Sept. 9, Jackson State (at Liberty Bowl, Memphis)

Sept. 16, Florida A&M (at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa)

Sept. 23, at UT Martin*

Sept. 30, Eastern Illinois*

Oct. 7, at Eastern Kentucky*

Oct. 14, Austin Peay*

Oct. 28, at Tennessee Tech*

Nov. 4, Virginia-Lynchburg

Nov. 11, Southeast Missouri*

Nov. 16, at Jacksonville State*

* - OVC game

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4. EASTERN ILLINOIS PANTHERS

LOCATION: Charleston, Illinois

STADIUM: O'Brien Stadium

COACH: Kim Dameron (18-17, three seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-4 OVC (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Devin Church, RB; Jarvis Williams, DL; Seth McDonald, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Mitch Kimble, QB, Sr. (112 of 190, 1,414 yards, 13 TD, 5 INT in seven games)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: David Johnson, DE, Sr. (51 TT, 12.5 TFL, 3 Sacks, 2 PBU, 3 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Robert Columbus, RB, So.; Darshon McCullough, RB, So.; Dennis Turner, WR, Sr.; Alexander Hollins, WR, Jr.; Aaron Gooch, WR, Jr.; Addison Bounds, TE, Sr.; Louis Vailopa, C, Sr.; Grant Branch, LT, Jr.; Austin Askin, LG, Sr.; Chibuike Nwuda, DL, Sr.; Taylon Shephard, NG, Jr.; Mack Weaver, DE, Sr.; Nick Horne, LB, Sr.; Bradley Dewberry, FS, Sr.; Raymond Crittenden, S, So.; Vincent Speller, S, Sr.; DySaun Smith, CB, Jr.; Mark Williams, DB, Fr.; Xzavier Shugars, DB, So.; Nick Bruno, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Dameron's first three seasons have been mediocre, but the longtime power has the chance to be in OVC title contention come midseason. Kimble had an excellent, though injured-shortened, first season leading the offense and should be outstanding behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The biggest question is whether the Panthers can replace the production of Church, their leading rusher, receiver and scorer. The defense boasts one of the nation's overlooked standouts, Johnson, a South Carolina transfer who was ineligible until the fourth game last season.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at Indiana State

Sept. 9, at Northern Illinois

Sept. 16, Illinois State

Sept. 23, Southeast Missouri*

Sept. 30, at Tennessee State*

Oct. 7, Tennessee Tech*

Oct. 14, at Murray State*

Oct. 21, Jacksonville State*

Oct. 28, at UT Martin*

Nov. 4, Eastern Kentucky*

Nov. 18, at Austin Peay*

* - OVC game

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5. TENNESSEE TECH GOLDEN EAGLES

LOCATION: Cookeville, Tennessee

STADIUM: Tucker Stadium

COACH: Marcus Satterfield (5-6, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 5-6, 5-3 OVC (3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (4 offense/11 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Michael Birdsong, QB; Brock McCoin, WR; Maleek Hall, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Dontez Byrd, WR/KR, Sr. (74 TT, 933 yards, 7 TD; 26.3-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Josh Poplar, LB, Jr. (105 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 3 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Hayden Rettig, QB, Gr. (Rutgers transfer); Yeedee Thaenrat, RB, So.; Alex Carling, TE, Jr.; Charles Rutledge, LT, Sr.; Jarred Dorton, RT, Sr.; Tim Collins, DE, Jr.; Joe Robertson, DE, Sr.; Mike Cain, DT, Sr.; Deven Sullivan, LB, Jr.; Clay Davis, S, So.; Shannon Fayne, S, So.; Deontay Wilson, Jr., S; A.J. Flemister, CB, Jr.; Josh Cunningham, CB/WR, Jr.; Nick Madonia, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Tech had to love Satterfield's first season as the Golden Eagles finished third with their first above-.500 OVC record since winning the conference in 2011. They'll use a challenging non-conference schedule to prepare them this season. But they also received a scare in the offseason when second-team All-OVC pick Poplar was hospitalized and diagnosed with a stroke. He's part of a veteran defense that is seeking improvement, especially against the pass. Rettig redshirted at LSU and didn't play much at Rutgers (one start), but he seeks a great finish to his career, teamed with the speedy Byrd and last year's surprising running back, Thaenrat.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Western Illinois

Sept. 9, at Kennesaw State

Sept. 16, at Ball State

Sept. 23, at Eastern Kentucky*

Sept. 30, Jacksonville State*

Oct. 7, at Eastern Illinois*

Oct. 14, at Southeast Missouri*

Oct. 28, Tennessee State*

Nov. 4, Austin Peay*

Nov. 11, at Murray State*

Nov. 18, UT Martin*

* - OVC game

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6. MURRAY STATE RACERS

LOCATION: Murray, Kentucky

STADIUM: Roy Stewart Stadium

COACH: Mitch Stewart (7-15, two seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 4-4 OVC (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: KD Humphries, QB; Jesse Blackburn, TE; Toby Omli, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jordon Gandy, WR, R-Sr. (62 receptions, 976 yards, 11 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: D'Montre Wade, DB/KR, R-Sr. (50 TT, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 15 PBU, 1 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Shuler Bentley, QB, R-Jr. (Old Dominion transfer); Cam Birse, QB, R-Sr.; Mareio McGraw, RB, So.; Joe Irby, OL, Sr.; J.R. Burns, OL, Jr. (Northwest Miss. CC transfer); Chris White, OL, Jr.; Kenney Wooten, DL, Jr. (Itawamba CC transfer); Bishop Woods, DL, Sr.; Lamont Crittendon, LB, R-Sr.; Marquez Sanford, DB, Jr.; Zach Wade, DB, R-Sr.; Rico McGraw, DB, Jr. (Georgia transfer); Landon Stratton, P, R-Jr.; Wes Drewery, LS, R-Jr.

OUTLOOK: With an experienced team, the Racers must believe they can build on last year's second-half success, which included wins over Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State. The big loss is Humphries, their record-setting, three-year quarterback. Bentley, an Old Dominion transfer, appears to be emerging as the starter. He'll love the surrounding talent, including McGraw and Grandy, who led the OVC in receiving yards. The Racers, though, need to get better in the trenches. Their defense allowed over 35 points per game. This is a year in which Murray State doesn't face Tennessee State, so it has an extra game out of conference.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Kentucky Wesleyan

Sept. 9, Central Arkansas

Sept. 16, at Missouri State

Sept. 23, Austin Peay*

Sept. 30, at Louisville

Oct. 7, at UT Martin*

Oct. 14, Eastern Illinois*

Oct. 28, Eastern Kentucky*

Nov. 4, at Jacksonville State*

Nov. 11, Tennessee Tech*

Nov. 18, at Southeast Missouri*

* - OVC game

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7. EASTERN KENTUCKY COLONELS

LOCATION: Richmond, Kentucky

STADIUM: Roy Kidd Stadium

COACH: Mark Elder (3-8, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 3-8, 2-6 OVC (8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Devin Borders, WR; Justin Adekoya, LT; Avery Pitt, DT

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Ethan Thomas, RB, Jr. (93 carries, 385 yards, 2 TD in eight games)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Aaron Patrick, DE, Jr. (53 TT, 10 TFL, 7 Sacks, 1 PBU, 10 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tim Boyle, QB, Sr. (UConn transfer); Garrett Kruczek, QB, R-So. (UCF transfer); Jason Lewis, RB, R-So. (Arizona State transfer); L.J. Scott, RB, R-Jr. (Louisville transfer); Ryan Markush, WR, Sr.; Neiko Creamer, WR, R-Jr.; Cameron Kowalewski, LT, R-Jr.; Chance Edwards, LG, R-Sr.; Jeffrey Canady, LB, r-Sr.; Corey Glass, LB, Jr.; Nigel Bethel, CB, Sr.; Ben Bascom, DB, R-So.; Cornelius Floyd, DB, Sr. (Arkansas transfer); Keith Wrzuszczak, P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Elder's first season produced only the Colonels' second record below .500 (5-6 in 2009) since 1973, so they're focused on a rebound. An unsettled quarterback position defined last season, and Boyle, a UConn transfer, hopes to provide stability. A healthier Thomas at running back will try to get back to his 2015 level. Patrick, who made the All-OVC first team, and Canady, the team's leading tackler (123), give the defense a pair of standouts. The road schedule is difficult, and a Sept. 9 visit to Kentucky will reunite the Colonels with former head coach Dean Hood, now a Wildcats assistant.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Western Kentucky

Sept. 9, at Kentucky

Sept. 23, Tennessee Tech*

Sept. 30, at Southeast Missouri State*

Oct. 7, Tennessee State*

Oct. 14, at Jacksonville State*

Oct. 21, UT Martin*

Oct. 28, at Murray State*

Nov. 4, at Eastern Illinois*

Nov. 11, Austin Peay*

Nov. 18, Saint Francis

* - OVC game

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8. SOUTHEAST MISSOURI REDHAWKS

LOCATION: Cape Girardeau, Missouri

STADIUM: Houck Stadium

COACH: Tom Matukewicz (12-22, three seasons; 13-22 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 3-8, 3-5 OVC (7th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (5 offense/4 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Will Young, RB; Roper Garrett, ILB; Alex Knight, P

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jesse Hosket, QB, Sr. (178 of 356, 2,332 yards, 11 TD, 7 INT; 3 rushing TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Chad Meredith, OLB, Sr. (86 TT, 10.5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 5 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Cameron Sanders, RB/RS, Jr.; Eddie Morris, RB, Jr.; Marquis Terry, RB, Jr. (Highland CC transfer); Kristian Wilkerson, WR, So.; Tyler McLemore, WR, Sr.; Austin Krump, TE, R-Fr.; Drew Forbes, LT, Jr.; Alex Snyder, RT, Sr.; Joshua Wilson, NT, Sr.; Reggie Miles, DE, So.; Kendall Donnerson, OLB, Sr.; Zach Hall, ILB, So.; Mike Ford, CB, Sr.; Omar Pierre-Louis, SS, Sr.

OUTLOOK: The Redhawks return only nine starters after losing a 28-member senior class from a disappointing season. Matukewicz signed 12 junior-college players to help fill the void. But they have to start closing out games - they're a mere 6-20 under Matukewicz in games that were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The defense was solid last season and returns All-OVC selection Meredith, who at 6-foot-4, 244 pounds will draw NFL interest. The offense averaged a conference-low 20.8 points, so Hosket has to raise the level of play in his second season as a starter. The Redhawks also will have a new look on special teams.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Kansas

Sept. 9, at Dayton

Sept. 16, Southern Illinois

Sept. 23, at Eastern Illinois*

Sept. 30, Eastern Kentucky*

Oct. 14, Tennessee Tech*

Oct. 21, at Austin Peay*

Oct. 28, at Jacksonville State*

Nov. 4, UT Martin*

Nov. 11, at Tennessee State*

Nov. 18, Murray State*

* - OVC game

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9. AUSTIN PEAY GOVERNORS

LOCATION: Clarksville, Tennessee

STADIUM: Governors Stadium

COACH: Will Healy (0-11, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 0-11, 0-8 OVC (9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jared Beard, WR; Tyler Miles, LT; Rod Owens, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Kentel Williams, RB, So. (101 carries, 541 yards, 6 TD; 24.1-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Gunnar Scholato, MLB, Sr. (124 TT, 7 TFL, 1 Sack, 2 INT, 2 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: JaVaughn Craig, QB, So.; Kadeem Goldbourne, WR, So.; D.J. Montgomery, WR, So.; Kyran Moore, WR/KR, Sr.; James Coleman, TE, Sr.; Ryan Rockenseus, OL, Jr.; Bryon Carver, DT, Sr.; Jaison Williams, DE, So.; Shaun Willinghill, DE, Jr.; Theron Hodges, DT, Jr.; Neonta Alexander, LB, So.; Pat Walker, LB, Jr.; Malik Boynton, DB, Sr.; DeKeivis Perry, CB, Sr.; Malik Davis, SS, Jr.; Chris Hopkins, S, So.

OUTLOOK: The 32-year-old Healy and his young coaching staff are determined to turn around the Governors program, which has lost an FCS-high 27 straight games. The record in Healy's first season doesn't reflect it, but the Governors' offense was much improved (nearly 120 yards per game, the FCS' biggest jump), especially after two freshmen, Craig and Williams, spearheaded the up-tempo scheme. But the Govs need considerable improvement on defense. Their 4-2-5 unit couldn't stop the run and wound up allowing 47 points and 506.6 yards per game. They also were minus-11 in turnover margin, ranking last in the conference. Healy brought in another touted recruiting class, so the talent level is rising.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at Cincinnati

Sept. 9, at Miami (Ohio)

Sept. 16, Morehead State

Sept. 23, at Murray State*

Sept. 30, UT Martin*

Oct. 7, Jacksonville State*

Oct. 14 at Tennessee State*

Oct. 21, Southeast Missouri State*

Nov. 4, at Tennessee Tech*

Nov. 11, at Eastern Kentucky*

Nov. 18, Eastern Illinois*

* - OVC game

Updated August 17, 2017

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