Scouting the Ohio Valley Conference

Friday, September 1, 2006

EASTERN ILLINOIS

Coach: Bob Spoo, 119-98 at EIU (19 years)

* Last year: 9-3 overall, 8-0 OVC (first)

* Returning starters: 16 (7 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: No. 2

* Five players to watch: QB Mike Donato (1,747 yards, 9 TD), RB Vincent Webb (1,129 yards, 15 TD), OL Jon Rueter, LB Clint Sellers (121 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 5 INT), DB Tristan Burge (86 tackles, 4 INT, 2 TD)

* Outlook: The Panthers rolled through the OVC schedule without a loss last year and, with a healthy amount of returning starters, many people consider them solid favorites to repeat, although they were picked to finish second in the conference's official preseason poll. They'll have to play the first four to six games without Spoo, who recently underwent surgery for an undisclosed health problem. Donato had a solid if unspectacular first season as EIU's starting quarterback. He has plenty of weapons to work with, along with an experienced offensive line that returns three all-conference selections and is arguably the league's top unit. Webb is coming off his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. The defensive unit is highlighted by Sellers and Burge. Sellers earned OVC defensive player of the year honors in his first season after transferring from junior college. He led the league in tackles.

* Noteworthy: EIU had six players selected to the preseason all-OVC team, tied for first in the conference. ... The 2005 Panthers bounced back from two consecutive losing seasons, after EIU had posted eight winning records in the previous nine years.

* Quoting Spoo: "I like our football team. The challenge for our football team is to have the same kind of resolve as last year. We should be a better football team than last year, but we'll have to be if we're going to be successful because we won't sneak up on anybody. But I do feel good about our team, with all the experience."

Schedule

Sept. 2at Illinois6
Sept. 9Indiana Sate6
Sept. 16at Illinois State6:30
Sept. 23at Samford*6
Sept. 30at Hawaii11
Oct. 7SE Missouri St.*1:30
Oct. 14at E. Kentucky*2
Oct. 21Murray State*1:30
Oct. 28at Tenn.-Martin*2
Nov. 4Tenn. State*1:30
Nov. 11at Tenn. Tech*1:30
Nov. 18Jacksonville St.*1:30

EASTERN KENTUCKY

Coach: Danny Hope, 20-14 at EKU (three years)

* Last year: 7-4 overall, 7-1 OVC (second)

* Returning starters: 16 (7 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: No. 1

* Five players to watch: QB Josh Greco (2,861 yards, 25 TD), RB Mark Dunn (931 yards, 14 TD), TE Patrick Bugg (40 receptions, 608 yards, 10 TD), DL Mark Cristiani (37 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks), LB Brandon Rosser (88 tackles, 3 INT, 2 TD)

* Outlook: After winning seven of their final eight games last season, the Colonels are favored to capture their first OVC title since 1997. Like defending champion Eastern Illinois -- which beat EKU 53-22 in 2005 -- EKU returns a solid amount of starters, including some of the league's top playmakers. Greco is the reigning OVC offensive player of the year, Dunn is among the conference's top running backs, and Bugg is arguably the OVC's premier tight end. There are also plenty of stalwarts on defense, led by Cristiani and Rosser. After losing to EIU so bad last season for their only conference loss, the Colonels have no doubt already circled Oct. 14 on their calendar. That matchup could decide the championship.

* Noteworthy: The Colonels also had six players selected to the preseason all-OVC team. ... EKU, which has registered 28 consecutive winning seasons, has made the Division I-AA playoffs a record 17 times over the 27-year history of the event, and the Colonels have won 18 OVC championships. But they have not won a league title or made the playoffs since 1997.

* Quoting Hope: "I'm surprised we were chosen ahead of Eastern Illinois [in the OVC preseason poll]. But I thought we'd get a lot of support because we have a lot of people back. I'm not real superstitious about it. It's a one-day accolade. It doesn't matter a whole lot at the end of the season. I think the OVC is very competitive. I don't see a lot of dropoff from teams picked at the top or bottom."

Schedule

Sept. 2at Cincinnati6:30
Sept. 9W. Kentucky5
Sept. 16at W. Carolina5
Sept. 21at Tenn. Tech*6:30
Sept. 30Jacksonville St.*2
Oct. 7at Samford*1
Oct. 14Eastern Illinois*2
Oct. 21at SE Missouri St.*1
Nov. 4Murray State*noon
Nov. 11at Tenn.-Martin*noon
Nov. 18Tenn. State*noon

JACKSONVILLE STATE

Coach: Jack Crowe, 37-29 at JSU (six years), 51-59 overall (nine years)

* Last year: 6-5 overall, 6-2 OVC (third)

* Returning starters: 15 (8 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: No. 3

* Five players to watch: RB/KR Clay Green (1,352 yards, 12 TD), RB Raynodd Zeine (408 yards, 3 TD), WR Taurean Rhetta (29 receptions, 544 yards, 5 TD), DB Kenny Brown (73 tackles, 3 INT), LB Marquise Elston (42 tackles, 4 tackles for loss)

* Outlook: The Gamecocks took the OVC by storm during their first two seasons in the league by winning consecutive league titles, but they dipped a bit last year, although they still had a chance to force a three-way tie for the championship on the final date of the regular season. JSU faces some serious challenges if it hopes to contend for another conference crown because the Gamecocks were perhaps hit harder by graduation than any other OVC team. Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding JSU is at quarterback, where Matt Hardin is the expected starter after attempting just 27 passes last year as the backup to Maurice Mullins. Green is the offensive star after ranking second nationally in all-purpose yardage last year with more than 2,000 yards. The defense has plenty of holes to fill, but Brown is solid.

* Noteworthy: JSU lost its first three games last year -- by a total of 12 points -- against a challenging nonconference slate, but closed strong by winning five of its final six games. ... The Gamecocks won the Division II national title in 1992 before moving up to Division I-AA. They have just five winning seasons on the Division I-AA level, but three have come in the last three years. ... Crowe is a former head coach at Arkansas.

* Quoting Crowe: "We're a changing team, a team in transition with a new quarterback. We've got a completely new offensive line and receiving corps. We have a long ways to go."

Schedule

Sept. 2at Furman12:30
Sept. 16SE Missouri St.*2:30
Sept. 23at Tenn.-Martin*6
Sept. 30at E. Kentucky*2
Oct. 5Murray State*5
Oct. 14at Miss. State1:30
Oct. 21Tenn. State*2:30
Oct. 28at Tenn. Tech*1
Nov. 4at Chattanooga5
Nov. 11Samford*11 a.m.
Nov. 18at E. Illinois*1:30

MURRAY STATE

Coach: Matt Griffin, first year at MSU, 10-24 overall (three years)

* Last year: 2-9 overall, 0-7 OVC (ninth)

* Returning starters: 15 (7 offense, 6 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: No. 5

* Five players to watch: QB Ryne Salyer (1,062 yards, 8 TD), RB Chad Cook (692 yards, 4 TD), WR Jonathan Eiland (27 receptions, 282 yards, 1 TD),LB Nathan Williams (103 tackles) DB Derrick Parrott (60 tackles, 3 INT)

* Outlook: There is no place to go but up for MSU, which last year suffered through one of the worst seasons in school history. But if anybody appears up to the challenge of turning around the Racers, it is Griffin, who performed a near-miraculous feat in three years at Tennessee-Martin. Griffin took over a Skyhawks program that had been last in the OVC seven straight years, with just one conference win during that period. Griffin's first two Skyhawks teams also were last in the league, but won two OVC games. Then last year the Skyhawks went 6-5 and 4-4 in the OVC, which led to Griffin taking over the Racers. The new coach has his work cut out. The Racers have serious questions at most positions, although Cook is a bruising running back. MSU allowed an OVC-worst 34.3 points per game in 2005, and its 38 turnovers led the nation. But, perhaps out of respect for Griffin, the Racers were picked to finish a surprisingly high fifth in the league.

* Noteworthy: MSU is one of two OVC teams without a preseason all-conference selection. ... The Racers went winless in the OVC last year for the first time since 1966 and their 2-9 overall record matched their worst mark since 1992, which led to Joe Pannunzio's dismissal.

* Quoting Griffin: "We had a great challenge a few years ago. We went into a place [Tennessee-Martin] that was down and left it better. We face the same challenge at Murray State, but I'm encouraged. We're extremely young, but we've got some talented guys."

Schedule

Sept. 2at Missouri6
Sept. 9at Tenn. State*6
Sept. 16at Indiana St.11:05 am
Sept. 23Illinois State6
Sept. 30Tennessee Tech*6
Oct. 5at Jacksonville St.*5
Oct. 14Samford*3
Oct. 21at E. Illinois*1:30
Oct. 28SE Missouri St.*1
Nov. 4at E. Kentucky*noon
Nov. 18Tenn.-Martin*1

SAMFORD

Coach: Bill Gray, 24-25 at SU (four years)

* Last year: 5-6 overall, 4-4 OVC (tie, fourth)

* Returning starters: 20 (9 offense, 9 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: No. 4

* Five players to watch: QB Jefferson Adcock (2,338 yards, 18 TD), RB Justin Ray (479 yards, 6 TD), WR Jeff Moore (53 receptions, 669 yards, 4 TD), DB Jay McCurty (88 tackles, 10 tackles for loss), PK Shannon Fleming (10-14 FG)

* Outlook: Perhaps no team is being mentioned more as an OVC darkhorse pick than the Bulldogs, who suffered through some growing pains last year with only five seniors on the entire roster but managed to win half of their conference games. Now, with 18 seniors and as many returning starters as anybody in the league, Samford could pose a threat to the OVC's expected heavyweights. Adcock had a solid season in his first year as a starter, and Moore returns as his favorite target. After fielding one of the OVC's worst defensive units two years ago, the Bulldogs improved considerably in that department last season and expect to make even more strides upward in 2006. Fleming is among the league's better kickers.

* Noteworthy: Samford joins Murray State as one of two OVC squads with no preseason all-conference selections. ... The Bulldogs have just one winning record in the past six years. ... Alex Mortensen, a quarterback transfer from Arkansas, is the son of ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen.

* Quoting Gray: "We feel pretty good about our returners. We do have a lot of experience back. It's a difference between daylight and dark from last year."

Schedule

Aug. 31Miles College7
Sept. 9at Georgia Tech2:30
Sept. 14Austin Peay7
Sept. 23Eastern Illinois*6
Sept. 30at SE Missouri St.*6
Oct. 7at E. Kentucky*1
Oct. 14at Murray State*3
Oct. 21Tennessee-Martin*2
Oct. 28at Tennessee State*6
Nov. 4Tennessee Tech*1
Nov. 11at Jcksnvlle St.*11 am

SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE

Coach: Tony Samuel, first year at SE, 34-57 overall (eight years)

* Last year: 2-9 overall, 2-6 OVC (seventh)

* Returning starters: 18 (8 offense, 8 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: No. 9

* Five players to watch: RB Tim Holloman (688 yards, 10 TD, 30 receptions, 226 yards), TE Joseph Tuineau (25 receptions, 305 yards), DL Edgar Jones (31 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks), PK Colin Schermann (12-14 FG), P David Simonhoff (42.8 average)

* Outlook: Southeast seemingly had its program headed in the right direction after going 8-4 in 2002 for its best record since 1969, but three losing seasons followed, including 3-8 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. That led to Tim Billings' resignation and the hiring of Samuel, a former head coach at Division I-A New Mexico State who has deep Nebraska roots. Despite the Redhawks' struggles last year, they were close to breaking even in conference play, losing in the final seconds against both Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech. Samuel thinks he has some talent to work with, although quarterback is a major question mark. Kevin Ballatore, who enters as the starter, saw limited action last year before suffering a season-ending injury. Holloman appears to be an emerging star in the backfield, while Schermann and Simonhoff are solid weapons. Southeast led the OVC in penalties in 2005.

* Noteworthy: Samuel, a former player at Nebraska under Tom Osborne, also was an assistant for Osborne when the Cornhuskers won consecutive national championships in 1994 and 1995. Five of Samuel's assistants also played at Nebraska. ... The Redhawks have just two winning records in 15 Division I-AA seasons, the most recent in 2002. The other came in 1994.

* Quoting Samuel: "I think we've got a good talent base, but depth is a question. Oh yeah, we should be able to compete with these guys. This is a very competitive league, but we can compete in this league."

Schedule

Sept. 2at Austin Peay6
Sept. 9Missouri-Rolla6
Sept. 16at Jacksnvlle St.*2:30
Sept. 30Samford*6
Oct. 7at E. Illinois*1:30
Oct. 14at Arkansas1
Oct. 21Eastern Kentucky*1
Oct. 28at Murray State*1
Nov. 4Tennessee-Martin*6
Nov. 11at Tenn. State*2:30
Nov. 18Tenn. Tech*1
TENNESSEE-MARTIN

* Coach: Jason Simpson, first year

* Last year: 6-5 overall, 4-4 OVC (tie, fourth)

* Returning starters: 20 (8 offense, 10 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: No. 6

* Five players to watch: RB Don Chapman (1,396 yards, 16 TD), WR Taurean Stephens (60 receptions, 651 yards, 5 TD), OL Alex Atkins, LB David Gilmore (91 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 4 sacks), DB Jack Greenwood (54 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks)

* Outlook: After last year's breakthrough season for the perennially woeful Skyhawks (see Murray State capsule), Jason Simpson takes over for Matt Griffin, who is now with the Racers. And since UTM was a relatively young team last year, there remains plenty of optimism for this season. The Skyhawks return as many starters as any OVC squad. The biggest question mark is quarterback, where UTM must replace four-year starter Brady Wahlberg, the school's all-time passing leader. Several players entered fall camp battling for the job, with only Drew Jackson having any college experience. He served as Wahlberg's backup the past two years. Chapman led the OVC in rushing in 2005 and has gone over 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons. After traditionally being the league's worst defensive team, the Skyhawks led the OVC in total defense last year.

* Noteworthy: Simpson has never been a college head coach before. The former Mississippi State football and baseball player was most recently offensive coordinator at Chattanooga. ... UTM has just two winning records in 14 Division I-AA seasons, the 1993 squad having previously matched last year's mark of 6-5.

* Quoting Simpson: "The cupboard is certainly not bare here. We have some good football players. No question, he [Chapman] is a good player. His stats are proven. No question he's going to get the ball a lot."

Schedule

Sept. 2at Ohio6
Sept. 7Urbana University6
Sept. 16Gardner-Webb6
Sept. 23Jacksonville State*6
Sept. 30at Austin Peay6
Oct. 5at Tennessee Tech*7
Oct. 21at Samford*2
Oct. 28Eastern Illinois*2
Nov. 4at SE Missouri*6
Nov. 11Eastern Kentucky*noon
Nov. 18at Murray State*1

TENNESSEE STATE

* Coach: James Webster, 2-9 at TSU (one year)

* Last year: 2-9 overall, 1-6 OVC (eighth)

* Returning starters: 20 (11 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

* Preseason OVC ranking: tie, No. 7

* Five players to watch: QB Richard Hartman (1,293 yards, 4 TD), RB Javarris Williams (872 yards, 4 TD), WR Gerald Morrow (40 receptions, 482 yards, 1 TD), DT Almonte Duncan (47 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), DB Aaron Strong (48 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 INT)

* Outlook: The head coaching debut of James Webster did not go as planned for the former longtime assistant, who had worked in mostly Division I-A programs since 1973. Despite having a solid defense that ranked in the upper half of most OVC categories, the Tigers were done in by an anemic offense that averaged league worsts of 12.4 points and 278 yards per game. Hartman returns at quarterback, but he was sporadic last year, throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, and South Carolina transfer Antonio Hefner could very well supplant Hartman as the starter. Williams was an offensive bright spot in his first season, when he earned OVC freshman of the year honors. The Tigers return some solid defensive players but must generate more offense to have any chance at success.

* Noteworthy: TSU, because of its three "Classic" games against other historically black colleges, is for the third straight season being allowed by the OVC to play just seven conference contests. The Tigers won't match up with Tennessee-Martin this year. ... The Tigers play their homes games at LP Field, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.

* Quoting Webster: "I feel we'll be more athletic this year, we'll be faster and stronger. With the team we're assembling, he {Williams} won't have to carry the load."

Schedule

Sept. 2Alabama A&M6
Sept. 9Murray State*6
Sept. 16vs. Jackson State6
Sept. 23at Vanderbilt6
Sept. 30vs. Florida A&M2
Oct. 14Tennessee Tech*6
Oct. 21Jacksonville State*2:30
Oct. 28Samford*6
Nov. 4at Eastern Illinois*1:30
Nov. 11SE Missouri*2:30
Nov. 18at Eastern Kentucky*noon

TENNESSEE TECH

* Coach: Doug Malone, first year at TTU, 24-29 overall (five years)

* Last year: 4-7 overall, 3-5 OVC (sixth)

* Returning starters: 16 (6 offense, 8 defense, 2 specialists

* Preseason OVC ranking: tie, No. 7

* Five players to watch: RB Anthony Ash (627 yards, 7 TD), WR Larry Shipp (50 receptions, 803 yards, 8 TD), WR Brent McNeal (40 receptions, 644 yards, 4 TD), DT John Jackson (31 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), DB Anthony James (76 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 INT)

* Outlook: The Eagles were forced to adjust on the fly during the summer when Mike Hennigan stepped down for health reasons. Hennigan, a former TTU player, had been the Eagles' head coach the previous nine years. But since TTU's administration replaced Hennigan with somebody already on the staff, the impact will probably be minimal. Stephen Britton, who threw for more than 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns but was intercepted 14 times last year, appeared to have a leg up as the starting quarterback this season, but redshirt freshman Lee Sweeney won the job in fall camp. Sweeney is a transfer from Louisville who redshirted there in 2005. Sweeney has solid weapons to work with, led by Ash and Shipp. TTU's traditionally solid defense slipped in 2005, allowing a league-worst 398 yards per game.

* Noteworthy: Malone was named acting head coach of the Eagles on July 14, shortly after Hennigan requested a medical leave of absence following nine seasons. Malone, TTU's offensive coordinator under Hennigan the previous seven years, went 24-29 as head coach at Wingate from 1994 to 1998.

* Quoting Malone: "Our style is not going to change a whole lot. There might be a few differences, but this late in it, we're not going to change a whole lot."

Schedule

Aug. 31Chattanooga7
Sept. 9at Gardner-Webb5
Sept. 14at Middle Tennessee6
Sept. 21Eastern Kentucky*6:30
Sept. 30at Murray State*6
Oct. 5Tennessee-Martin*7
Oct. 14at Tennessee State*6
Oct. 28Jacksonville State*1
Nov. 4at Samford*1
Nov. 11Eastern Illinois*1:30
Nov. 18at SE Missouri*1
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