Conference title picture shrinks to 4 contenders

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

And then there were four.

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Ohio Valley Conference football race has basically been trimmed to four contenders -- but only two of those control their own destiny.

Jacksonville State leads the way at 5-1 following Saturday's 49-32 win at Alabama rival Samford that effectively knocked the 4-3 Bulldogs out of the title picture. Samford is still technically alive for a shot at sharing the crown, although some strange things would have to occur for that to happen.

If the Gamecocks -- who this week broke into The Sports Network national poll at No. 21 -- win their final two games they will finish as undisputed OVC champions and earn the league's automatic NCAA Division I-AA playoff berth.

"It's exciting. Our players are as excited as they've been all year, which is something important in November," Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said during Tuesday's weekly OVC teleconference. "It's a pump for our program, it's a pump for our players."

Lurking in Jacksonville State's way is Southeast Missouri State University, the OVC's preseason favorite which has righted its ship after starting the year with five straight losses.

The Indians improved to 4-2 in the OVC with Saturday's 52-35 home victory over Tennessee State, dropping the Tigers to 4-2. Eastern Kentucky is also 4-2 after holding off visiting Tennessee Martin 41-32, forming a three-way tie for second place.

But Southeast is the only one among the three second-place teams that needs no help. Having already beaten Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky -- and with Jacksonville State visiting Cape Girardeau in the regular-season finale on Nov. 22 -- if the Indians win their final two games, they can do no worse than tie for the title and because of head-to-head success would be the OVC's playoff representative.

"It really is exciting for our program," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "We're very fortunate, with the way we've played at times...we're one of the few teams that controls their own destiny. It's a great positive for us."

Added Billings, mindful of this week's game at struggling Tennessee Tech, "But we're not looking ahead. We know we have a tough game this week. We haven't beaten them there since I've been here."

And Billings knows if the Indians do stumble at Tennessee Tech, they would be eliminated from the title picture by a Jacksonville State win over visiting Eastern Illinois. That scenario would give the Gamecocks at least a share of the crown and send them to the playoffs.

Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky will need plenty of help to make the playoffs. First of all, one of the squads will all but be eliminated this week when they square off in Nashville, Tenn. And since the Tigers and Colonels have lost to both Jacksonville State and Southeast, they would lose possible tie-breakers against those squads.

Saturday's other OVC game was Eastern Illinois' 37-10 rout of Tennessee Tech that featured eight turnovers by the Eagles -- one shy of the school record -- as they lost for the fifth straight time.

Eastern Illinois is in sixth place at 3-3 and, like Samford, still mathematically alive for a share of the title although that's a huge longshot. The Panthers are followed by Murray State (2-4), Tennessee Tech (1-5) and Tennessee-Martin (1-6).

Records fall

Several league players broke school records during Saturday's games.

Samford quarterback Ray Nelson passed for three touchdowns, giving him a career-record 37, and Efram Hill set a single-game receiving mark by catching 16 passes.

Eastern Kentucky quarterback Matt Guice threw for 270 yards and rushed for 41 yards to give him 2,063 yards of total offense, which is a single-season Colonels record.

Tennessee State's Charles Anthony rushed for 157 yards and now has a career-record 2,937. The Tigers' C.J. Johnson, with 52 yards on seven receptions, is first in career receiving yardage with 3,603.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: