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Pressure cooker in the OVC
With arguably the best team in the conference not eligible for the league title, the nine-team Ohio Valley Conference could see some serious competition in 2009.
Jacksonville State, which finished 23rd in last year’s final Sports Network poll, had high hopes for the 2009 season until the NCAA ruled the Gamecocks ineligible for postseason play, due to the school’s academic progress report (APR).
That forced the OVC to protect its automatic playoff bid by declaring Jacksonville State could not compete for the league title.
“That penalty is historic,” said Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe. “This team is getting penalized for the history of somebody else.”
Crowe is familiar with this type of scenario, equating it to the 1984 Florida Gators, which went 9-1-1 that year and finished third in the Associated Press poll after being placed on probation.
That season, Crowe was the offensive coordinator at Auburn.
“We were a good football team and we had a lot of talented players,” said Crowe. “But by the time the year was over with anybody that didn’t say Florida wasn’t the best football team in that conference didn’t watch any games. They were a team that sort of found their mission in their frustration, because they had been denied the postseason.”
The Gamecocks, along with Crowe, would like to stir that pot and create debate.
“What if Florida could have played for the national championship?” Crowe added. “There was a lot of what iffing going on then. We need to put a what if out there.
With Jacksonville State on the sidelines for the 2009 title, two-time defending champion Eastern Kentucky is viewed by many as the league favorite.
Murray State and Tennessee-Martin both return starting quarterbacks and will look to compete with the top teams while Tennessee State will try and stay healthy.
Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay feature young quarterbacks and depth at the running back position which should allow both to move up in the standings.
Tennessee Tech and Southeast Missouri State return a combined 30 starters and should improve if each defense can stop the run.
Whoever wins the title will feel the heat of trying to end the OVC’s 13-game playoff losing streak. The league hasn’t won a postseason contest since then- league champion Western Kentucky beat Florida A&M 27-0 in the opening round of the 2000 playoffs.
What follows is our take on where the teams will finish, based on results, not NCAA sanctions.
1. Jacksonville State (8-3, 6-2, tied for second)
Although Jacksonville State is ineligible for a league title and playoff appearance, the Gamecocks could be the most talented team in the conference this season.
“We’ve got enough returning players on both sides of the ball to be optimistic,” said Crowe. “The core of the team is young but have played.”
LSU transfer and Payton Award candidate Ryan Perrilloux (2,686 yards of total offense, 26 TDs) returns behind center and gives the Gamecocks a star quarterback. Without All-OVC wideout Maurice Dupree, (49 catches, 16.3 average, 10 TDs), Perrilloux will most likely throw to Georgia Tech transfer Greg Smith. Tight end Eric Johns (18 catches, 10.4 average, five TDs) also gives Perrilloux another solid target.
Although Perrilloux is a top-tier quarterback, backup Marques Ivory (127 yards passing, two TDs) should get some playing time.
With the loss of all-conference running back Daniel Jackson, (815 yards rushing, 6.4 average) look for Brandon George (6.4 average) to start and junior college transfer Jamal Young to back him up.
The defense, with nine starters returning, could be the best in the league. Alexander Henderson (103 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss) leads the linebacking unit while All-American safety Carnell Clark (76 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback A.J. Davis (six pass breakups, three interceptions) anchor the secondary. Nose tackle Brandt Thomas (six tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles) gives each of the three levels of defense a reliable player.
2. Eastern Kentucky (8-4 overall, 7-1 conference, first in 2008)
Coach Dean Hood did exactly what was expected in his first season with the Colonels. Replacing Danny Hope, who departed for Purdue, Hood led them to their second consecutive league title and playoff appearance. The Colonels are somewhat depleted on defense and will need guys to step in.
“We really need the young guys to step up,” said Hood. “We have certain positions, especially on defense, that need to be filled.”
The loss of defensive end Chris Coy (148 career tackles, 17 sacks) leaves a large question mark, but All-OVC selection Chris Hall (13 tackles for loss, six sacks) should lead the pass rush.
With the graduation of All-American safety Brandon Gathof (250 career tackles, 13 interceptions), Wake Forest transfer Marcus Williams will most likely be inserted into the starting lineup.
Eastern Kentucky returns seven starters on offense including all-conference running back C.J. Walker (706 yards rushing, 4.8 average, seven TDs). The senior will most likely be relied on since some offensive positions are still up for grabs. Offensive tackle Derek Hardman should help improve a unit that allowed over two sacks per game last season.
The quarterback position is one of those question marks with Cody Watts, (11- of-13, 145 yards, two TDs passing) Trevor Hoskins and red shirt freshman T.J. Pryor all competing for the starting nod that had been held by Allan Holland. The wide receiving corps is another uncertainty with no player with over 36 catches last season returning.
3. Murray State (5-7, 4-4, fifth)
Murray State could be a sleeper to win the conference this season with 17 starters returning. But with their third offensive coordinator in the last three seasons, the Racers will look to find consistency on offense.
Coach Matt Griffin hasn’t yet had the success he hoped for with an 8-26 record in three seasons but led the Racers to their biggest win total since a 7-4 record in 2004. After rebuilding the Tennessee-Martin program, Griffin is used to improvement as the Skyhawks posted their first winning season since 1993 in 2005 with him at the helm.
Jeff Ehrhardt (2,206 yards of total offense, 13 TDs) is back at quarterback but needs to improve the 218 yards-per-game from 2008. The depth at wide receiver should improve that with Marcus Harris, (61 catches, six TDs) Derrick Townsel (53 catches, 12.6 average) and tight ends Daniel Ard (35 catches, 12.5 average, five TDs) and DeAngelo Nelson (34 catches, 11.4 average) all back.
Buck Buchanan Award candidate defensive end Austen Lane (63 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 12 sacks) gives the Racers a solid pass rush, but he needs more help from a unit that has struggled since 2005. Free safety Taylor Lannigan (104 tackles, six pass breakups) and linebacker Tamar Butler (91 tackles, eight tackles for loss) provide experience for a defense that allowed nine less points-per-game last season.
Harris (26.9 kickoff return average), along with Ja-Vonta Trotter, (8.2 punt return average) give Murray State an edge on special teams.
4. Tennessee-Martin (8-4, 6-2, tied for second)
Tennessee-Martin improved by four games in 2008 with an offense that lead the league with 37.3 points-per-game. Coach Jason Simpson, in his first season back in 2006, led the Skyhawks to the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
“We think we’ve changed expectations here,” said Simpson. “I think our offense will be the best since I’ve been here.”
With all-league quarterback Cade Thompson (2,680 yards passing, 24 TDs) back behind center, the fourth-ranked scoring offense in the country last season should stay consistent. Mike Hicks (66 catches, 13.5 average, 12 TDs) returns as Thompson’s number one target. Dexter Anoka, moved from quarterback in the off-season, should give UT-Martin some depth at wideout although the team lost Roren Thomas (42 catches, 18.8 average, seven TDs) due to team discipline.
All-OVC selection Brandyn Young (702 yards rushing, 4.9 average, 12 TDs) and Miguel Barnes (478 yards rushing, 4.7 average, four TDs) are a formidable one- two punch in the run game.
There are still some question marks on defense with the loss of All-American defensive tackle Ray Williams (56 tackles, eight tackles for loss, six sacks) to graduation and safety Dontrell Miller (six pass breakups, four interceptions, four fumble recoveries, five TDs) to a team suspension. Four starters return to help improve a defense that allowed 342 yards-per-game last season.
All-OVC performer Josh Bey (88 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) and Brent Acker (83 tackles, nine tackles for loss, four forced fumbles) return at linebacker to give the Skyhawks a formidable unit.
Chris Murray and junior college transfer Tim Cox should improve a rush defense that allowed 152 yards-per-game last season.
5. Eastern Illinois (5-7, 3-5, sixth)
Expectations were high for Eastern Illinois going into the 2008 season, but injuries crippled the offense and ultimately lead to the team’s downfall. Coach Bob Spoo is back for his 22nd season.
“Fundamentally, we weren’t very sound last year,” said Spoo. “We need that leadership that we’ve had in the past.”
That leadership ability could come from All-American offensive guard Chaz Millard. Along with the rest of the line, he will try to protect quarterback Bodie Reeder (1,931 yards passing, 13 TDs) and running backs Chevon Walker, (365 yards rushing, 4.9 average) Desmin Ward (322 yards rushing, 11 TDs) and Mon Williams, who returns after missing 2008 with a torn ACL.
Only one starter returns at wide receiver in Charles Graves. (40 catches, 14.0 average) Look for some of the younger guys to make an impact here.
The defense showed improvement last season cutting down in points allowed but returns just six starts an one on the defensive line. Tackle Andre Lima (37 tackles, eight tackles for loss) will have his hands full, but Illinois transfer D’Angelo McCray will start at the other tackle position.
The secondary might be the biggest upside for the Panthers as free safety Seymour Loftman (72 tackles, three interceptions) and cornerback Rashad Haynes (60 tackles, four interceptions) have the ability to limit the passing attack.
Shawn Williams (24.3 kick return average, 18.8 punt return average) filled in nicely on special teams last season and will be the focal point of that unit this season.
6. Tennessee State (8-4, 5-3, fourth)
Tennessee State has had trouble staying healthy recently but managed to almost win the league in 2008. But with only five starters returning from that team and four players moving on to the NFL, (quarterback Antonio Heffner, running back Javarris Williams and offensive lineman Cecil Newton and Cornelius Lewis) coach James Webster knows the offense could struggle.
“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill,” said Webster. “I feel like our defense and special teams will have to carry us until the offense gels.”
One of those holes is at the quarterback position. Dominic Groomes (74% completion percentage, three TDs), Jeremy Perry and Michael Becker all had good springs but Groomes is the current candidate to take over for Heffner. (career 6.403 yards of total offense, 46 TDs)
Although the running back position is still for the taking, look for Preston Brown, who missed the 2008 season with a pulled groin, and Dante’ Thomas (348 yards, three TDs) to fill the void of all-conference honoree Williams. (career 5,117 yards of total offense, 44 TDs)
Although the defense returns just three starters, they add some players that could improve their unit. Top tackler, linebacker Rico Council (67 tackles, two forced fumbles) returns while Florida transfer John Jones joins the team.
The secondary lacks experience with just Ohio State transfer cornerback Eugene Clifford (61 tackles, three interceptions) and cornerback Ozzie Harrell (three pass breakups) back. JaJuan Spillman (24.9 kick return average) could return on special teams if he is academically eligible.
7. Austin Peay (2-9, 2-6, tied for seventh)
After their second winning season in 23 years in 2007, Austin Peay won just two games in 2008. Coach Rick Christophel is back for his third season.
“We have corps group of seniors back,” said Christophel. “We would like to build our defense around them.”
One of those seniors is all-conference linebacker Daniel Becker. (102 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions) Joining him on defense are cornerbacks Kevis Buckley (six interceptions) and LaDarius Davis, as well as defensive ends Chris Newell (5.5 tackles for loss) and Nick Clark. (28 tackles)
The offense wasn’t all that productive in 2008, racking up just 19.3 points- per-game. However, the team returns starters at all key positions starting with young quarterback Trent Caffee. (732 yards passing, seven TDs)
The depth at running back with Ryan White (600 yards rushing, 5.1 average, three TDs) and Terrence Holt (287 yards rushing, 5.6 average) should give the offense some momentum but the offensive line needs to open up the run game for a unit that averaged just 3.8 yards-per-carry last season.
Holt is also the team’s leading kickoff and punt returner as he should improve last year’s numbers. (24.7 kick return average, 9.6 punt average)
8. Tennessee Tech (3-9, 1-7, ninth)
Tennessee Tech hasn’t had a winning season since winning six contests in 2004, but with 16 starters back, coach Watson Brown knows the potential of his squad.
“I think there is more depth and experience than a year ago,” said Brown. “This will be a much more competitive team than last season.”
The depth starts at running back with the top five rushers returning, including Henry Sailes (433 yards rushing, 6.0 average, four TDs), who returns from a broken hand, and Cedric Wilkerson. (305 yards rushing, two TDs). Both backs are reliable receiving threats as they tallied double-digit catches last season.
Minnesota transfer Clint Brewster joined the team this summer and earned the starting quarterback role over three-year starter Lee Sweeney (career 5,389 yards passing, 36 TDs, 37 INTs). He will have plenty of wideouts to throw to, with the Golden Eagles returning Tim Benford (68 catches, 11.5 average, 10 TDs), Antonio Robinson (23 catches, 12.6 average) and Colin Allen (21 catches, 16.5 average).
The defense needs the most improvement after allowing 35 points-per-game last season. Eight starters return from that unit including all-conference linebacker/defensive end Charlie Seivers, (65 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, five sacks) linebacker Justin Vann (two interceptions), who started just five games in 2008, and cornerback Taron Ryce. (six pass breakups, two interceptions)
The linebacking corps and secondary will be under the most pressure this season as it will try and improve without linebacker Corey Reed (130 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss) and cornerback Maurice Smith. (128 tackles, 11 tackles for loss)
9. Southeast Missouri State (4-8, 2-6, tied for seventh)
Coach Tony Samuel is back for his fourth season after three straight sub-500 seasons. With 14 starters back, Samuel should rely on his veterans.
“I like the nucleus coming back,” said Samuel. “I try not to count on newcomers.”
Matt Scheible (794 yards of total offense, seven TDs) and Dustin Powell are two capable quarterbacks although Scheible is on-pace to be named the starter.
Henry Harris (318 yards rushing, four TDs) will likely carry the load at running back while all-league wideout Walter Peoples (65 catches, 13.9 average, six TDs) is back to give Scheible a favorite target. Miles Edwards (31 catches, 13.9, three TDs) adds depth to that corps as well.
The linebacking unit will have to step up with the loss of all-OVC performer Nick Stauffer (150 tackles, 10 tackles for loss). Philip Klaproth (76 tackles, two interceptions) and Josh Woods (7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) need help to stop the run.
Cornerbacks Eddie Calvin and (69 tackles, four interceptions) Salim Powell (24 tackles) and safety Bryan Blanfort (54 tackles, three interceptions) return to a secondary that needs to lessen the 210 yards-per-game through the air it allowed last season.
One area the Redhawks don’t need to worry about is the kicking game. Doug Spada is an All-American punter (44.7 average, 31.1 net) and also an effective place kicker (29-of-30 PATs, 15-of-24 field goals).
By Brett Kahn, Sports Network