NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jacksonville State coach John Grass takes being picked to repeat as Ohio Valley Conference champ as a compliment for how the Gamecocks ran through the league undefeated a year ago.
The only pressure his Gamecocks feel is making up for how they ended last year.
“To win 10 straight, then lose the playoff game was not where our expectations were of seeing our team finishing, so a lot of disappointment there,” Grass said Monday. “I’ve seen that hunger from this team and they’re ready for the fall to start.”
Jacksonville State went 10-2, became only the 10th team to go undefeated in OVC play and earned the No. 3 seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last year. The Gamecocks lost 37-26 to Sam Houston State in the second round.
The Gamecocks, who return nine starters on offense and seven on defense, had 12 players voted to the OVC preseason team. That helped Jacksonville State receive 16 of 18 first-place votes Monday at OVC media day to repeat as champ. The preseason poll of the league’s coaches and sports information directors had Eastern Illinois finishing second and Eastern Kentucky third.
The OVC sent two teams to the FCS playoffs last year, with Eastern Kentucky joining Jacksonville State. Tennessee State, Jacksonville State and Eastern Illinois all reached the playoffs in 2013. That depth has Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood chasing a title as well.
“That may run through Jacksonville State, it may not,” said Hood, whose Colonels got the other two first-place votes. “There’s a lot of parity in our league.”
UT Martin was picked by the league’s coaches and sports information directors to finish fourth followed by Tennessee State, Southeast Missouri, Tennessee Tech, Murray State and Austin Peay.
Jacksonville State’s only other loss last season was at Michigan State. Eli Jenkins is back at quarterback to lead the offense, while Devaunte Sigler is the preseason defensive player of the year.
Eastern Illinois coach Kim Dameron says Jacksonville State deserves to be picked to repeat with so many players returning. Dameron’s Panthers will host Jacksonville State on Nov. 7. Eastern Illinois senior Jalen Whitlow threw for 2,075 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2014 and ran for 792 yards and 12 more TDs. He’s trying to win like Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo before him while leaving his own mark on the program.
“I do what I can do and I feel like if we get the wins, that’ll take care of itself,” Whitlow said.
The game that decides the OVC title could be Nov. 7 when Jacksonville State visits Eastern Illinois. Grass said he will have an offensive plan ready if the winds are as strong as they were two years ago, making passing nearly impossible.
“That’s a tough place to go play,” Grass said.
Eastern Kentucky has the OVC’s preseason offensive player of the year in Dy’Shawn Mobley among 16 starters back from last season. Mobley ranked sixth nationally with 20 touchdowns rushing and finished with 1,491 yards in helping the Colonels win nine games last season. UT Martin has 13 starters back, led by quarterback Jarod Neal, from a team that went 5-3 in OVC play last season.
Tennessee State has a new offensive coordinator, and coach Rod Reed has only three starters back from a defense that was one of the stingiest in the nation last year.
Mitch Stewart is the OVC’s lone new head coach this season at Murray State, and he has spent the past five seasons there as an assistant coach with the last four as offensive coordinator.