Final standings differ from preseason poll

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

While the teams predicted to finish toward the top of the Ohio Valley Conference football standings did not do nearly as well as expected, several league squads made impressive turnarounds this year.

Preseason favorite Southeast Missouri State University recovered from an 0-5 start and numerous injuries, but the Indians (5-7, 5-3) fell short of their first OVC title by losing Saturday's regular-season finale to Jacksonville State 22-17. Southeast wound up in a three-way tie for third place.

"We're disappointed we didn't win the championship, but what a great team, having to overcome everything we went through," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "I'm really proud of them."

Murray State (4-8, 3-5), the defending co-champion and preseason No. 2 choice according to a poll of the conference's coaches, never could quite recover from a season-ending knee injury to quarterback Stewart Childress early in OVC play, along with the graduation loss of its entire offensive line. The Racers finished tied for sixth in the nine-team league.

Eastern Illinois (4-8, 3-5), which shared last year's title with Murray State and was picked third in the coaches' poll, could not overcome the graduation loss of offensive stars Tony Romo and J.R. Taylor, along with an offensive line decimated by graduation. The Panthers tied for sixth with the Racers.

Now, for the teams not predicted to do well that shined.

Jacksonville State (8-3, 7-1) tied for fifth in the preseason poll but the Gamecocks won their final six games to capture the OVC title in their first season in the league. Entering Saturday's first-round NCAA Division I-AA playoff game at Western Kentucky, they have made a three-victory improvement from last year's 5-6 campaign.

"We started out 2-3 and lost to a Division II team," Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said. "This team has played with a lot of heart and pride all year."

Samford (7-4, 5-3), like Jacksonville State a first-year OVC member from Alabama, was predicted to finish eighth but tied for third. The Bulldogs reversed their overall record as they went 4-7 last year.

And Tennessee State (7-5, 5-3) was picked seventh after slumping to a 2-10 record last year and winning just one conference game, but the Tigers wound up tied for third.

Also, Eastern Kentucky (7-5, 6-2), the preseason No. 4 pick, finished in sole possession of second place in its first year under coach Danny Hope. And the Colonels extended their impressive streak of winning seasons to 26.

Rounding out the conference, Tennessee Tech (2-9, 1-7) and Tennessee-Martin 2-10, 1-7) wound up tied for last place.

Tennessee Tech, which tied with Jacksonville State for fifth in the preseason poll, was looking good until losing quarterback Robert Craft to a knee injury early in conference play. The Eagles never recovered, finishing with seven straight losses and their worst overall record since 1991.

Tennessee-Martin showed considerable improvement under rookie coach Matt Griffin as the Skyhawks won their first OVC game since 1996. But the preseason pick to finish last still wound up in that spot for the eighth straight year.

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