By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
NASHVILLE, TN. — The big question in the Ohio Valley Conference is when this once proud league will break through again with another win in the NCAA Division I Football playoffs?
In a league that featured the first truly dominant program in Football Championship Subdivision history, there has been a multitude of frustration that the OVC teams haven't won a playoff game since Murray State beat Western Illinois 34-6 in the first round in 1996.
There have been plenty of close calls in recent years, including Eastern Kentucky's 20-17 loss to James Madison last season.
Eastern Kentucky, which established the OVC's legacy by advancing to four consecutive national championship games from 1979-82 and won titles in 1979 and 1982, is one of several schools with legitimate designs at ending that nasty streak this season, but the Colonels will have to fight off challenges from the likes of Jacksonville State, Murray State, Tennesse Tech and Tennessee-Martin to win the conference crown.
The OVC has had an influx of talent in recent years that has closed the gap with other FCS leagues and last year's tri-championship of EKU, JSU and Tennessee Tech, with other teams nipping at their heals shows how competitive things have become.
The OVC has also managed to place two teams in the NCAA tournament in the past two seasons.
It seems like just a matter of time before the league returns to the winner's circle in the FCS playoffs.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Eastern Kentucky
2. Jacksonville State
3. Murray State
4. Tennessee Tech
6. Tennessee State
7. Southeast Missouri State
8. Austin Peay
9. Eastern Illinois
Eastern Kentucky (7-5, 6-2) regained some swagger in winning six of its last seven regular season games to gain a share of the OVC title and earn an at-large playoff berth.
One of only two teams, along with Youngstown State to make four consecutive championship games, the two-time champion Colonels will be their offense around multi-purpose quarterback T.J. Pryor, now a senior and hard-charging running back Matt Denham, whose rushing success mirrored EKU's late-season run.
The major reasons for Denham's success was the play of the best returning tackle tandem in FCS, Aaron Adams and Patrick Ford. O. J. Enabosi is another stalwart up front and Jeremy Jones in the league's top fuil
Expect a major breakthrough from wide receiver Tyrone Goard, who could develop into a high NFL draft choice.
The Colonels can build around a top-flight linebacker on defense wit Ichiro Vance returning. Anthony Brown is another standout at linebacker and Justin Bell will help in the secondary.
Jacksonville State (7-4, 6-2) shared the OVC title with EKU and Tennessee Tech last season, but the Gamecocks were disappointed when they were overlooked for a playoff bid. JSU ran the ball as well as ever last season, but the Jack Crowe-coached squad struggled to stop the run.
Junior Coty Blanchard established himself early as a top-flight quarterback when he led the Gamecocks to a comeback, overtime win against Mississippi as a freshman. And senior Marquis Ivory is back after breaking his leg in the season opener against UT-Martin.
Washuan Ealey is one of the most versatile running backs in FCS and should establish himself as a solid NFL prospect as a senior.
JSU needs to have some people step up defensively to reestablish itself as a top-25 program. Rashad Smith is the leader of the unit at linebacker.
Special teams should be a strength with James Esco kicking the ball and two dynamic players, Gabriel Chambers and Alan Bonner returning kickoffs and punts.
Murray State (7-4, 5-3) can score points with just about anyone in FCS, but the Racers also give up yards just about as fast. The key for success again this season for the Chris Hatcher-coached team will be how much improvement it can make on the defensive side of the ball.
Strong-armed Casey Brockman (3,276 yards and 25 TDs passing last season) has shattered numerous school and OVC records in his previous years at MSU and he should set even more as a senior in Hatcher's wide-open passing attack.
But the Racers need to replace Mike Harris in the backfield to provide balance to Brockman's passing skills. Duane Brady will step into Harris' role.
Linebackers Qua Huzzie and Sam Small will combine with Kevin Robinson on the defensive line and Darrien Skinner in the secondary to lead a defense that must improve against the run. The Racers ranked 102nd nationally in rush defense last season.
Tennessee Tech (7-4, 6-2) had a breakthrough by earning the automatic bid in the OVC last season and hopes to build on that success this season. The Golden Eagles were a balanced team a year ago and coach Watson Brown hopes consistency comes through again.
There are few stars on this team, but one area of strength is the offensive line with Slade Adams and Michael Baker.
They will be protecting Tre Lamb, who had 2,555 yards of total offense and 17 TDs passes, but who needs to cut down on his 10 interceptions.
The Eagles must replace Donte Gay, who rushed for 1,045 yards and 15 touchdowns. Adam Urbano will have an expanded role in the backfield.
Defensive back Austin Tallant had a team-leading 92 tackles as a freshman, including 16 in the NCAA playoffs against Central Arkansas. Linebacker Marcus Edwards had 9.5 TFL for the Eagles last year.
Tennessee-Martin (5-6, 4-4) was the polar opposite of Tennessee Tech, with the Skyhawks struggling to play consistently and falling to a losing record last season after being a OVC contender in previous years.
UTM scored nearly 35 points per game behind the leadership of quarterback Derek Carr, who had 2,549 yards of total offense. Carr's favorite receiver is Quentin Sims.
On defense, Montori Hughes is a significant force on the line and Ben Johnson will lead from the linebacker position.
Cody Sandlin is the top place kicker in the league.
Tennessee State (5-6, 4-4) has plenty of individual skill, but needs to take another step forward to become a contender again.
Things start up front for the Tigers, with Roger Gaines, Kadeem Edwards and Sherman Carter on a very good offensive line protecting quarterback Michael German and opening holes for running back Trabis Ward. Fullback Johntae Gleaves is another solid blocker.
German likes to get the ball to wide receiver Devin Wilson.
But the offense wasn't the problem last year. The Tiger defense ranked 113th in FCS and struggled in all aspects. Antonio Harper and Samquan Evans give TSU some building blocks on the line and Steven Godbolt is a star in the secondary, but the Tigers need to develop more standouts to improve.
Weldon Garlington solidifies the kicking game for the Tigers.
Southeast Missouri State (3-8, 2-6) went from the outhouse to the penthouse and then back again in the span of three years. After earning a share of the OVC title and helping Tony Samuel win the Eddie Robinson Award as the top coach in FCS in 2010, the Redhawks couldn't overcome graduation losses last season.
SEMO does have the top defensive player in the conference with Blake Peiffer patrolling at linebacker, but the Redhawks were 107th in total defense and 113th in points allowed last season.
On offense, Southeast Missouri State must replace veteran quarterback Matt Schieble, a solid run-pass athlete, who piled up 2,426 yards of total offense last season, but nine offensive starters return.
Ohio University transfer QB Kyle Snyder tore an ACL to ruin his season, leaving the job to redshirt freshman Scott Lathrop, a former walk-on.
Austin Peay (3-8, 2-6) is still trying to overcome obstacles after its return to scholarship football and the OVC. The Governors are one of the hardest-playing teams around, but have talent shortcomings.
Both sides shared equally in Austin Peay's problems last season. The offensive was 100th in passing and 102nd in scoring, while finishing 104th in total defense.
Antwaun Majors is one of the top defensive backs in the OVC and Reese Bulmash is a talented performer on the defensive line.
Eastern Illinois (2-9, 1-7) has struggled in the past couple of years and said goodbye to veteran coach Bob Spoo after last season.
New coach Dino Babersfaces big task in rebuilding the Panthers after serving as the offensive coordinator for Roberrt Griffin III, last year's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
Three stats told the story of EIU's 2011 fortunes. The Panthers were 108th in rushing, 114th in stopping the run and 114th in turnover margin. It didn't help that Eastern Illinois ranked 104th in sacks and 105th in tackles for loss.
The troubles on the defensive line should be helped by Artavious Dowdell and Roosevelt Holliday, while Antonio Taylor should sparkle at linebacker and Nick Beard will anchor the secondary.
Wide receiver Chris Wright and tight end Von Wise give EIU the start of a good passing attack, if Jimmy Garoppolo can improve at quarterback.