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Preview: Jacksonville State favored in Ohio Valley, prepared for a deep run

Remarkably, Jacksonville State has lost only one Ohio Valley Conference game over the past five seasons.

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire)

Looking to return to the title game for the first time since 2015, Jacksonville State (9-4) could be the most dangerous team in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.

Led by Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper, who threw 32 touchdown passes in his inaugural season in a JSU uniform, and NFL prospect Marion Bridges, arguably the best defensive player in the FCS, the Gamecocks are heavily favored to once again capture the Ohio Valley Conference championship.

The seventh-highest scoring team in the country last season, averaging a brisk 40 points per game, while boasting the tenth best pass-efficiency defense by holding opponents to a relatively meager 108.4 passing yards per outing, JSU will almost certainly make a deep run in this year’s FCS playoffs.






Jacksonville State’s offensive prowess will be on display again this season. Look for All-America wide receiver Josh Pearson, who set a school record and led the nation in touchdown receptions last year, to have another banner year. Pearson’s 67 catches for 1,123 yards and seventeen touchdowns will be augmented by fellow wide receiver Jamari Hester, who had an impressive 59 receptions for 864 yards and eleven touchdowns himself.

With an outstanding secondary, so, too, will its vaunted defense.

Remarkably, Jacksonville State has lost only one Ohio Valley Conference game over the past five seasons — a stunning 37-14 setback to Southeast Missouri last year — and with fifteen starters returning should roll to its sixth straight OVC championship.

(Southeast Missouri)

Southeast Missouri (9-4), which snapped Jacksonville State’s 36-game Ohio Valley Conference winning streak last year by pummeling the Gamecocks 37-14 in a game not as close as the final score might indicate, brings back 15 starters, including ten on a defense anchored by linebacker Zach Hall, who led the nation with 168 tackles last season.

Though losing tailback Marquis Terry — the OVC Offensive Player of the Year — the Redhawks should have enough offensive firepower in Northern Illinois transfer Daniel Santacaterina, who threw for a blistering 2,844 yards and 28 TDs, to earn a spot in the FCS playoffs.






One-time Ohio Valley Conference powerhouse Eastern Kentucky (7-4) finished exceptionally strong last season, winning its final four games, but will have to play preseason favorite Jacksonville State and Southeast Missouri on the road this year — a difficult task for anybody.

Nevertheless, if the Colonels take care of business in their other conference games, the OVC could become a three-bid conference in 2019.

EKU, incidentally, has an opportunity to make some early noise when it plays FBS rival Louisville in a guarantee game on Sept. 7 — five days after the Cardinals play Notre Dame. The two teams have played each other 27 times in the past and will meet again in 2021 and 2025. Louisville won the last encounter, clobbering the Colonels 44-7 in 2013.

Murray State (5-6), which plays Georgia on September 7th, got off to a quick start in conference play last season by winning their first four league games, but faltered down the stretch and won only one of its final four Ohio Valley contests.

With arguably the best special teams in the OVC and the addition of University of Florida transfer DaQuon Green at wide receiver, look for the Racers, coming off their best conference finish since 2011, to avoid a similar late-season collapse this season.






Austin Peay (5-6) will make strides under new head coach Mark Hudspeth, a former Mississippi State offensive assistant who previously held head coaching positions at North Alabama and Louisiana, leading the latter school to five bowl appearances.

Look for dynamic senior running back Kentel Williams, the OVC’s leading returning rusher, to have a big year for the Governors.

Injury-plagued Tennessee State (4-5) boasts eighteen returning starters, including quarterback Demry Croft, and should be able to win more than three conference games this season if it can avoid some of the injuries it struggled with last season and learn to win on the road.

Losing five games by a touchdown or less last season, UT Martin (2-9) will make some strides this season, but a difficult nonconference schedule which includes road games against FBS opponents Florida and Kentucky will make it difficult for the Skyhawks to make any dramatic improvement on their overall record.






Coming off its worst season since 2011, Eastern Illinois (3-8) will try to regroup under new head coach Adam Cushing, a former assistant at Northwestern.

Things probably won’t get much better for Tennessee Tech (1-10), which yielded a whopping 526.3 yards and 46.1 points per game last season — the second-most points in the country — while losing to Utah State by a lopsided 73-12 and to conference foe Southeast Missouri by a score of 70-38.

OVC Freshman of the Year Bailey Fisher, who passed for 1,661 yards and rushed for 346 more while scoring a total of thirteen touchdowns, is one of the few bright spots for the Golden Eagles, who return sixteen starters.

Prediction

  1. Jacksonville State (9-4, 7-1 OVC)
  2. Southeast Missouri (9-4, 6-2 OVC)
  3. Eastern Kentucky (7-4, 5-2 OVC)
  4. Murray State (5-6, 5-3 OVC)
  5. Austin Peay (5-6, 3-5 OVC)
  6. Tennessee State (4-5, 3-4 OVC)
  7. UT Martin (2-9, 2-6 OVC)
  8. Eastern Illinois (3-8, 3-5 OVC)
  9. Tennessee Tech (1-10, 1-7 OVC)

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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