The Eastern Kentucky offensive linemen try to keep running back Matt Denham humble.
They joke that he looks like Eddie Murphy. They throw his equipment around.
They're testing his focus.
"As long as I feed them, they're fine," the good-natured Denham said.
All of the EKU players can learn a lesson from Denham. The Colonels have an excellent chance to win the Ohio Valley Conference title and make a run in the FCS playoffs. They'll have to stay humble, focused and not get caught looking ahead.
And it won't be a bad idea to keep feeding the ball to Denham, their Walter Payton Award candidate who will work behind one of the best offensive lines in the FCS.
"Week in and week out, you have to prove it," said Denham, whose late-season excellence fueled EKU to a three-way share of last year's OVC title with Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State.
"Being the favorite in the conference, you have a target on your back and everyone is going to give you their best game. So I think as long as we're not complacent game-to-game, we should be pretty good."
The Colonels' veteran roster includes 10 players who earned All-OVC preseason selections - by far the most in the conference. Their program has captured an OVC-high 21 conference titles and been in the playoffs 20 times, which is the second-most in FCS (formerly Division I-AA history).
An OVC team hasn't won a playoff game since 2000, but that run of futility could end considering what the conference's preseason favorite returns this season.
"It's a challenge because most people want to live off the hype. And living off hype can only get you so far," senior cornerback Justin Bell said.
"If our name's still there at the end of the season, then our goal's accomplished."
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2012 Ohio Valley Conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Eastern Kentucky
2. Jacksonville State
3. Murray State
4. Southeast Missouri
5. Tennessee Tech
6. UT Martin
7. Tennessee State
8. Eastern Illinois
9. Austin Peay
1. EASTERN KENTUCKY COLONELS (7-5 overall, 6-2 OVC)
COACH: Dean Hood (26-20 in four seasons at Eastern Kentucky)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (10 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Matt Denham (254 carries, 1,570 yards, 9 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: SLB Anthony Brown, Jr. (72 TT, 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 PBU, 13 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: T.J. Pryor, Sr. (130-of-234, 1,605 yards, 18 TD, 8 INT; 96 carries, 180 yards, 1 TD)
RB Jeremiah Williams, Sr. (87 carries, 317 yards, 3 TD)
FB Jeremy James, So.
WR Tyrone Goard, Sr. (39 receptions, 627 yards, 11 TD)
WR Cameron Bailey, Sr. (29 receptions, 370 yards, 1 TD)
WR Justin Williams, Jr. (14 receptions, 193 yards, 1 TD)
TE Matt Lengel, Jr. (14 receptions, 186 yards, 2 TD)
LT Patrick Ford, Sr.
LG Travon Carter, Jr. (Trinity Valley CC transfer)
C O.J. Enabosi, Sr.
RG Justin Meredith, Jr.
RT Aaron Adams, Sr.
DE Shawn Shuppard, Jr. (41 TT, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 5 QBH, 1 FR)
DE Robert Knowles, Sr. (33 TT, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 5 QBH, 1 FR)
DE Nick Vicini, Sr. (22 TT)
DT Bryce Krebs, R-Fr.
DT David Carter, Jr. (26 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 QBH)
DT Courtney Prince, Sr. (Virginia Tech transfer)
MLB Ichiro Vance, Jr. (86 TT, 10.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FF)
WLB Kevin Hamlin, Sr. (71 TT, 4.5 TFL, 4 INT, 2 QBH, 2 FR)
CB/RS Justin Bell, Sr. (51 TT, 2 INT, 6 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
CB Trey Thomas, So.
SS Brandon Stanley, So.
FS Brooklyn Fox, Sr. (80 TT, 3 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FR)
PK Luke Pray, Jr. (10-of-12 FG, 41-of-43 PAT)
P Jordan Berry, Jr. (69 punts, 41 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSSES: DT Emory Attig (60 TT, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF) and SS Patrick McClellan (93 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR, 2 FF)
OUTLOOK: With one or more senior leaders at every position, the Colonels appear ready to live up to the favorite's role in the OVC. Last season seemed to be a building block; they earned a share of the conference title and were a surprise FCS playoff qualifier, falling to James Madison on a last-second field goal in the first round. Their offense should be outstanding behind a line led by Adams, Ford and Enabosi, who are all returning All-OVC first-team selections. Hood will keep giving the ball to Denham, who after the offense switched to a pro style attack during the season averaged 184.5 rushing yards over the final eight games. Pryor enters his fourth season as the starting quarterback having thrown for 5,371 career yards. His favorite receiver, the 6- foot-5 Goard, caught 11 touchdowns last season. The Colonels also have a big- play defense, with Brown making the switch from defensive end (where he was first-team All-OVC as a sophomore) to strongside linebacker. Add in Hamlin and All-OVC first-teamer Vance and it's one of the better linebacker units in the FCS. Bell was yet another All-OVC first-team selection.
Sept. 1 - at Purdue
Sept. 8 - vs. Morehead State
Sept. 15 - at Coastal Carolina
Sept. 22 - vs. Jacksonville State
Sept. 29 - at UT Martin
Oct. 6 - at Tennessee State
Oct. 13 - vs. Austin Peay
Oct. 20 - at Tennessee Tech
Oct. 27 - vs. Eastern Illinois
Nov. 3 - at Southeast Missouri State
Nov. 10 - vs. Murray State
2. JACKSONVILLE STATE GAMECOCKS (7-4 overall, 6-2 OVC)
COACH: Jack Crowe (81-52 in seven seasons at Jacksonville State; 95-82 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (6 offense/4 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Washaun Ealey, Sr. (178 carries, 1,082 yards, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: WLB Rashad Smith, Jr. (77 TT, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Marques Ivory, Sr. (5-of-10, 56 yards, 1 TD; injured last season)
QB/P Coty Blanchard, Jr. (135-of-211, 1,703 yards, 12 TD, 5 INT; 106 carries, 427 yards, 6 TD; 53 punts, 37 ypp)
RB DaMarcus James, So.
RB Jerry Slota, Jr.
WR Trey Smith, Sr. (24 receptions, 300 yards, 2 TD)
FL/RS Alan Bonner, Sr. (33 receptions, 582 yards, 3 TD; 9.9-yard punt return average)
TE Denzel Cheeks, Jr.
LT Odie Rush, Sr.
LG Blake Burks, So.
C Max Holcolmbe, So.
RG Tori Mobley, Sr.
RT Tarik Milner, So.
NT Caleb Lawrence, So.
DT Barry Stafford, Fr.
DE DiMetrio Tyson, Sr. (25 TT, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 3 QBH, 1 FF)
SLB Nick Johnson, Sr.
MLB Ben Endress, So.
CB Rashod Byers, So.
CB Francis Duncan, Sr. (33 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
CB Denzel Bynum, So.
SS Pierre Warren, So. (37 TT, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FR)
FS Robert Gray, Jr. (15 TT, 2 INT, 2 PBU)
SS Keginald Harris, Sr.
Bandit James Powell, Jr. (14 TT; injured last season)
PK Griffin Thomas, Jr.
BIGGEST LOSS: DT Jamison Wadley (47 TT, 10 TFL, 3 sacks)
OUTLOOK: A share of the OVC title didn't quench the Gamecocks' thirst when they sat on the sidelines during the FCS playoffs last year. This season, they face a daunting non-conference schedule and a pivotal OVC game early on - Sept. 22 - at Eastern Kentucky. They get back Ivory from the season-ending fractured right fibula that sidelined him after last season's opening game. The offense runs best with Ivory, although the seasoned Blanchard is more QB 1A than QB 2. Crowe will work him into games, too. Crowe also considers All-OVC RB Ealey to be the best he's had as Jacksonville State and the former Georgia Bulldog should build on last year's 1,000-yard campaign. The defense, which is a 5-2 basic, might be the team's undoing. It returns only four starters and needs some of its youngsters to step up their play. That notion is strengthened by the fact most of the OVC teams have starting quarterbacks returning. The Gamecocks' defensive leaders are DE Tyson and LB Smith.
Sept. 1 - at Arkansas
Sept. 8 - vs. Chattanooga
Sept. 22 - at Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 29 - vs. Southeast Missouri State
Oct. 6 - at Tennessee Tech
Oct. 13 - at Eastern Illinois
Oct. 20 - vs. Tennessee State
Oct. 27 - vs. Murray State
Nov. 3 - at UT Martin
Nov. 10 - vs. Austin Peay
Nov. 17 - at Florida
3. MURRAY STATE RACERS (7-4 overall, 5-3 OVC)
COACH: Chris Hatcher (13-9 in two seasons at Murray State; 107-36 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Casey Brockman, Sr. (316-of-477, 3,276 yards, 25 TD, 9 INT; 91 carries, 211 yards, 4 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: OLB Qua Huzzie, Jr. (80 TT, 14 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
RB Duane Brady, So. (60 carries, 283 yards, 1 TD)
RB Marquise Grizzle, Fr.
RB/KR Jaamal Berry (Ohio State transfer)
WR Ja-Vonta Trotter, Sr. (48 receptions, 523 yards, 4 TD)
WR Dontel Watkins, Sr.. (Utah State transfer)
WR Walter Powell, Jr. (45 receptions, 584 yards, 5 TD)
WR HB Beauford, Sr. (42 receptions, 493 yards, 2 TD)
WR Nevar Griffin, So. (28 receptions, 256 yards, 3 TD)
WR/RS Patrick Roberson, Sr. (23 receptions, 230 yards, 5 TD; 22.1-yard KO return average; 11.4-yard punt return average)
LT Drew Kelley, So.
LG Hunter Hogan, Jr.
C Harris Bivin, Jr.
C Brock Rydecki, Sr.
RG Andy Mahoney, Sr.
RT Roderick Tomlin, Sr.
DE Kevin Robinson, Jr. (36 TT, 10.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 6 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF)
DT Tevin Wells, Sr.
DT Jerome Davis, So. (Garden CC transfer)
NT Tyler Evans, Jr. (13 TT, 4.5 TFL)
DE Ayo Ojolola, Jr.
OLB Cory Addison, Jr. (South Carolina transfer)
MLB Sam Small, Sr. (115 TT, 9.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
MLB Blake Salter, Jr. (33 TT, 1 PBU)
MLB Fred Harvey, So. (Memphis transfer)
CB Darrien Skinner, Jr. (34 TT, 4 PBU, 2 FF in eight games; injured last season)
CB Darius Buck, Sr. (40 TT, 2 INT, 2 PBU)
CB Julian Whitehead, Sr. (54 TT, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FR)
Bandit Jarius Williams, Sr. (26 TT, 1 INT)
Rover Brandon Wicks, Jr. (89 TT, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 2 BK)
PK Jordan Benton, R-So.
P Ron Pavlik, R-Fr.
BIGGEST LOSS: RB Marcus Harris (189 carries, 1,018 yards, 13 TD; 30 receptions, 234 yards, 1 TD)
OUTLOOK: The Racers have learned to win consistently in Hatcher's two seasons; now they have to win the bigger games. They've been late to the OVC dance - the title race - having won five of their final six games in each of the last two season. They expect to have a better first half of the season behind Brockman, who's one of the FCS' best quarterbacks and a Walter Payton Award finalist. He's thrown for as many as 600 yards and seven touchdowns in a game. His wide receivers corps returns its top-three pass catchers and adds Watkins, who caught 42 passes at Utah State in 2010. The Racers, who averaged an OVC-high 37.1 points and 460.9 yards per game, will struggle to replace Harris, their former dynamic running back. Defensively, the 4-3 unit is more athletic and should be much improved because most of the key players return, including pass- rushing DE Robinson. However, a top linebackers unit took a hit when Small was injured in spring practice. Still, Huzzie is among the OVC's best at his position. Not to be overlooked is the loss of four-time All-OVC place-kicker and punter Kienan Cullen.
Sept. 1 - at Florida State
Sept. 8 - vs. Central Arkansas
Sept. 15 - at Missouri State
Sept. 22 - at Eastern Illinois
Sept. 29 - vs. Tennessee Tech
Oct. 6 - at Austin Peay
Oct. 13 - vs. UT Martin
Oct. 27 - at Jacksonville State
Nov. 3 - vs. Tennessee State
Nov. 10 - at Eastern Kentucky
Nov. 17 - vs. Southeast Missouri State
4. SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE (3-8 overall, 2-6 OVC)
COACH: Tony Samuel (25-43 in six seasons at Southeast Missouri State; 58-100 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RT Evan Conrad, Sr.
DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB Blake Peiffer, Sr. (151 TT, 7.5 TFL, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kyle Snyder, So. (Ohio U. transfer)
TB Levi Terrell, Sr. (47 carries, 312 yards, 3 TD in five games; injured last season)
TB Renard Celestin, Sr. (39 carries, 244 yards, 1 TD)
TB Lennies McFerren, So. (65 carries, 255 yards, 1 TD)
FB Ron Coleman, So. (83 carries, 320 yards, 5 TD; 14 receptions, 138 yards)
WR D.J. Foster, Sr. (25 receptions, 352 yards, 3 TD)
WR/KR Spencer Davis, So. (20 receptions, 314 yards, 3 TD; 9 carries, 250 yards, 1 TD; 20.5-yard KO return average)
WR Ola Alli, Sr.
TE Tyler French, Sr. (8 receptions, 60 yards, 1 TD)
LT Ben Schmidt, So.
LT William Jelks, So.
LG Colt McCauley, Sr.
C Matt Shannon, Sr.
RG Pete Niggemann, Sr.
RG Traven Mable, R-Fr.
DE Alonzo Nevarez, Sr.
DT Taylor Ramsey, Sr.
NT Joe Malolo, Sr. (48 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FR)
DE Justin Love, Sr. (22 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 PBU)
SLB Daniel Siehndel, So.
WLB Darrick Borum, Sr. (65 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 BK)
WLB Wisler Ymonice, Jr. (23 TT, 2 TFL)
CB Cantrell Andrews, Jr.
CB Reggie Jennings, So.
CB Tim Hamm-Bey, So. (19 TT, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 2 BK)
SS Ben Kargbo, Jr. (26 TT, 2 TFL, 1 FR)
FS Branden Spann, Sr.
FS Tylor Brock, Sr. (64 TT, 8 PBU, 1 FR)
PK Drew Geldbach, Sr. (7-of-13 FG, 23-of-26 PAT)
P Joe Vucic, Jr. (44 punts, 41.1 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSS: QB Matt Scheible (123-of-233, 1,459 yards, 12 TD, 7 INT; 187 carries, 967 yards, 9 TD)
OUTLOOK: SEMO has gone from two wins in 2009 to nine in 2010 (and an OVC championship) to three last season. Samuel's squad hopes this season is more like two years ago. The Redhawks play three of their first four conference games at home, so a solid start is likely. It will be hard for opponents to stop the Redhawks' deep running game. Conrad has 32 career starts and will anchor the line. Snyder, the transfer who played well in the spring game, steps in as a mobile quarterback, while RB Terrell hopes to be much improved after suffering a broken collarbone in the fifth game last season. The Redhawks will try to play more of a physical style after ranking a terrible 107th in total defense in the FCS last season (allowing 433.9 ypg, their worst average since 2004). Peiffer, a Buck Buchanan Award candidate who collected 151 tackles as a junior, could fuel an improvement. His sidekick, Borum, also is a three-year starter.
Aug. 30 - at Central Michigan
Sept. 8 - vs. Mars Hill
Sept. 15 - at Southern Illinois
Sept. 22 - vs. Tennessee Tech
Sept. 29 - at Jacksonville State
Oct. 13 - vs. Tennessee State
Oct. 20 - vs. UT Martin
Oct. 27 - at Austin Peay
Nov. 3 - vs. Eastern Kentucky
Nov. 10 - at Eastern Illinois
Nov. 17 - at Murray State
5. TENNESSEE TECH GOLDEN EAGLES (7-4 overall, 6-2 OVC)
COACH: Watson Brown (33-24 in five seasons at Tennessee Tech)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Tre Lamb, Sr. (204-of-303, 2,342 yards, 17 TD, 10 INT; 109 carries, 213 yards, 6 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Rover Will Johnson, Sr. (45 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Adam Urbano, Sr. (77 carries, 475 yards, 1 TD)
RB Cody Forbes, Jr.
RB Tremaine Hudson, Sr.
WR/RS Zack Ziegler, Sr. (37 receptions, 375 yards, 3 TD)
WR Steve Wilson, R-Fr.
WR Ryan Tighman, Jr.
WR Cody Matthews, So.
LT Hunter Beedle, Sr.
LG Wesley Sherrill, Jr.
C Michael Baker, Sr.
RG Slade Adams, Sr.
RT James Normand, Jr.
DE Marcus Edwards, Sr. (41 TT, 9.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 QBH)
DT LaDarrius Verge, Sr.
NT Lamar Moore, Jr.
DE/NT Jordan Johnson, Jr. (40 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 QBH)
LB Austin Tallant, So. (92 TT, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
LB Howard Griffin, Sr. (79 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
LB Blake Adams, Jr. (35 TT)
LB Tommie McBride, Sr. (26 TT, 2 PBU)
CB Jamel Cook, So.
CB Caleb Mitchell, Sr. (28 TT, 2 INT, 4 PBU)
FS Marty Jones, Jr. (87 TT, 3.5 TFL, 4 INTs, 2 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF in 2010; missed last season)
Rover Corey Webber, So. (35 TT, 1 sack)
PK Zach Sharp, So. (9-of-15 FG, 46-of-47 PAT)
P Chad Zinchini, Jr.
BIGGEST LOSSES: WR Tim Benford (65 receptions, 923 yards, 5 TDs) and RB Dontey Gay (190 carries, 1,045 yards, 15 TD)
OUTLOOK: Picked fifth in last year's OVC preseason poll, the Golden Eagles earned a share of their first conference title since 1975 and the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. They probably lost too many key seniors to forge another title season, especially when once again they face the brutal stretch of Murray State, Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky in a row. Some of last year's backups, though, appear ready to take on key roles. Watson opened up the offense with a faster pace last season and Lamb returns to run it. His offensive line, led by Adams, is a strength, but the running backs and wide receivers will work by committee after the Golden Eagles lost WR Benford, the OVC's offensive player of the year, and RB Gay. Defensively, All-OVC picks Edwards is an outstanding pass rusher and he's backed by an active set of linebackers. The safeties will be outstanding, led by Johnson (6-2, 205) and Jones, who was the team's second-leading tackler in 2010 but missed last season. The Golden Eagles relied on an inner confidence that others didn't see coming last year. They need more of it this season.
Aug. 30 - vs. Hampton
Sept. 6 - vs. North Greenville
Sept. 15 - at Oregon
Sept. 22 - at Southeast Missouri State
Sept. 29 - at Murray State
Oct. 6 - vs. Jacksonville State
Oct. 20 - vs. Eastern Kentucky
Oct. 27 - at Tennessee State
Nov. 3 - vs. Eastern Illinois
Nov. 10 - vs. UT Martin
Nov. 17 - at Austin Peay
6. UT MARTIN SKYHAWKS (5-6 overall, 4-4 OVC)
COACH: Jason Simpson (37-31 in six seasons at UT Martin)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB/P Derek Carr, Sr. (200-of-346, 2,482 yards, 25 TD, 10 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: WLB Ben Johnson, Jr. (97 TT, 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 8 QBH, 3 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Jason McNair, Sr. (166 carries, 782 yards, 5 TD; 24 receptions, 200 yards)
RB Tevin Barksdale, Sr. (107 carries, 685 yards, 8 TD)
RB D.J. McNeil, Jr. (58 carries, 275 yards, 5 TD)
WR Quentin Sims, R-Sr. (54 receptions, 712 carries, 10 TD)
WR Kevin Barfield, Jr. (15 receptions, 183 yards, 1 TD)
WR Corey Jordan, Jr. (10 receptions, 86 yards, 1 TD)
WR Jeremy Butler, Jr. (College of Sequoias CC transfer)
TE Ben Everett, Sr.
LT Charles Sweeton, So.
LG John Johnson, So.
C Tyler Eady, Jr.
RG Matthew Axline, R-Fr.
RT Michael Bryant, Sr.
DE Jett Howard, Sr.
NT Darrin Nalls, Sr. (33 TT, 8 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FR)
NT Montori Hughes, Sr. (30 TT, 6.5 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
DT Ryan Isom, So.
DE D.J. Roberts, Jr. (50 TT, 11 TFL, 3.5 sack, 9 QBH)
MLB Tony Bell, Fr.
SLB James Ratliff, R-Fr.
CB Aaron Simms, R-Fr.
CB/RS Thad Williams, Sr. (21.9-yard KO return average, 1 TD)
FS Fred Flenori, So. (36 TT)
FS Julius McNair, Sr. (53 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 TFL, 2 PBU)
S Jvontez Blackmon, Jr.
PK Cody Sandlin, Sr. (14-of-17 FG, 45-of-47 PAT)
P James Satterfield, So.
BIGGEST LOSS: WR Stephen Shiver (42 receptions, 657 yards, 6 TD)
OUTLOOK: Simpson has focused on his veteran team getting the small details right during games. He expects that to add up to something big. There's no doubt the offense, which ranked second to Murray State in the OVC in scoring offense (34.6 ppg) and total offense (427.2 ypg) last season, will come up big. Carr is back for his third season as the starting quarterback and is among the OVC's best. He has a plethora of offensive weapons, including McNair and Barksdale, who were both in the top 10 in OVC rushing, and Sims, who had a dominant season on the perimeter. The offensive line is perhaps the best it's been in years. The defense, on the other hand, is under its third coordinator in three years, Jeff Byrd. It will have multiple looks while it seeks improvement. The defensive line has excellent size and the secondary is retooling at safety. WLB Johnson is a former walk-on who led the defense in tackles and was all over the field last season. The special teams lost a standout, C.J. Estelle, who led the FCS in punt return average, but Sandlin is a standout with long range.
Sept. 1 - at Memphis
Sept. 8 - at Northern Illinois
Sept. 13 - vs. Southeastern Louisiana
Sept. 22 - at Austin Peay
Sept. 29 - vs. Eastern Kentucky
Oct. 6 - vs. Eastern Illinois
Oct. 13 - at Murray State
Oct. 20 - at Southeast Missouri State
Nov. 3 - vs. Jacksonville State
Nov. 10 - at Tennessee Tech
Nov. 17 - vs. Tennessee State
7. TENNESSEE STATE TIGERS (5-6 overall, 4-4 OVC)
COACH: Rod Reed (8-14 in two seasons at Tennessee State)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Michael German, So. (140-of-250, 1,899 yards, 12 TD, 7 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Antonio Harper, Jr. (44 TT, 9 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Trabis Ward, Jr. (193 carries, 978 yards, 11 TD)
RB Darian Hall, So. (University of Miami transfer)
FB Johntae Gleaves, Sr.
WR Devin Wilson, Sr. (48 receptions, 586 yards, 2 TD)
SE/KR Travis James, Sr. (27 receptions, 529 yards, 5 TD; 17.4-yard KO return average)
SE Jeremy Pryor, Jr. (19 receptions, 203 yards, 1 TD)
TE Wesley Samuels, Jr. (12 receptions, 97 yards, 1 TD)
TE A.C. Leonard, So. (Florida transfer)
LT Rogers Gaines, Sr.
LG Kadeem Edwards, Jr.
C Sherman Carter, Sr.
RG Anthony Woods, Sr.
RG Demetrius Rhaney, Jr.
RT Brandon Haskin, Sr.
DT Mike Murphy, Sr.
NT Samquan Evans, So. (22 TT, 5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 FF)
DE Lamar Wallace, Sr. (16 TT, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 QBH, 2 FR, 1 FF)
LB Wilson Robinson, Jr. (41 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 QBH, 2 FR)
LB Nick Thrasher, So.
LB Greg Barksdale, Jr.
CB Andrew Taylor, Jr. (34 TT, 7 PBU, 2 FF)
CB Steven Godbolt, So. (37 TT, 2 INT, 7 PBU)
CB Bernell Brooks, R-Fr.
CB Justin Bather, Sr. (27 TT, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
SS David Van Dyke, So. (18 TT, 3 PBU)
FS/SS Daniel Fitzpatrick, So. (69 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 PBU)
PK/P Jamin Godrey, Jr. (16-of-24 FG, 37-of-39 PAT)
P Andrew Hays, Fr.
RS/WR Welden Garlington, So. (20.9-yard KO return average, 1 TD; 19.4-yard punt return average, 1 TD)
BIGGEST LOSS: LB Rico Council (87 TT, 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: The Tigers improved considerably in Reed's second season and brought home the Sgt. York Trophy (which is given to the team with the best head-to- head record among the four Tennessee schools in the OVC). Many of this year's key players are underclassmen. QB German was the OVC Freshman of the Year and will only get better alongside the productive Ward and Wilson. The big offensive line is where the Tigers are senior-dominated. Too often the Tigers have to win shootouts, however. They lost the OVC Defensive Player of the Year in Council and their returning defensive starters are all underclassmen. An injury will prevent sophomore DT D.J. McClellion from playing this year, which hurts the front seven. Harper's pass rush will have to set a tone up front. Fitzpatrick is coming off a superb freshman season (69 tackles). The special teams are in good shape, featuring Godfrey (25 career field goals) and breakaway returner Garlington. The Tigers, who usually play home games at LP Field (home of the Tennessee Titans), will play on their campus three times (Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech) to honor the university's 100-year anniversary.
Sept. 1 - vs. Florida A&M
Sept. 8 - vs. Jackson State
Sept. 15 - vs. Austin Peay
Sept. 22 - at Bethune-Cookman
Sept. 29 - vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Oct. 6 - vs. Eastern Kentucky
Oct. 13 - at Southeast Missouri State
Oct. 20 - at Jacksonville State
Oct. 27 - vs. Tennessee Tech
Nov. 3 - at Murray State
Nov. 17 - at UT Martin
8. EASTERN ILLINOIS PANTHERS (2-9 overall, 1-7 OVC)
COACH: Dino Babers (first season at Eastern Kentucky)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Chris Wright, Sr. (42 receptions, 735 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Artavious McDowell, Sr. (45 TT, 7.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 PBU, 7 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Jr. (217-of-349, 2,644 yards, 20 TD, 14)
RB Jake Walker, Sr. (151 carries, 580 yards, 10 TD)
RB A.J. Woodson, So. (68 carries, 215 yards, 1 TD)
FL Adam Drake, So. (19 receptions, 313 yards, 1 TD)
FL Erik Lora, Jr. (50 receptions, 478 yards, 2 TD in 2010; injured last season)
WR Chavar Watkins, Sr. (12 receptions, 151 yards)
WR Jeremy Rykard, Sr. (19 receptions, 141 yards, 1 TD)
WR Jimmy Lera, So. (45 carries, 187 yards)
TE Von Wise, Sr. (32 receptions, 348 yards, 2 TD)
TE Sam Hendricks, So. (17 receptions, 194 yards, 3 TD)
LT Dominic Pagiliara, Jr.
LG Mike O'Neill, Sr.
C Kevin Kapellas, Sr.
RG Alex Pierce, Jr.
RT Collin Seibert, So.
RT Shane Kelly, Sr.
DE Judes Amilcar, Jr. (28 TT, 1.5 TFL)
DE Clinton Simpkins, Jr. (23 TT, 3 sacks)
DE Pat Wertz, Sr. (21 TT, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR)
DT Jon Voytilla, Jr. (13 TT, 3 TFL, 1 FF)
DT Roosevelt Holliday, Sr. (41 TT, 4 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)
DT Jerone Williams, Sr.
LB Antonio Taylor, Jr. (92 TT, 5 INT, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FR)
CB/PR Pete Houlihan, Jr. (29 TT)
CB D.J. Bland, So. (46 TT, 2 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FF, 2 BK)
FS Nick Beard, Jr. (69 TT, 6 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
Rover Alex McNulty, Jr. (43 TT, 4 TFL, 1 PBU)
PK Cameron Berra, Jr. (7-of-9 FG, 28-of-30 PAT)
P Scott Weatherford, So. (48 punts, 37.6 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSS: LB Cory Leman (106 TT, 1.5 TFL)
OUTLOOK: The final two seasons of the successful Bob Spoo era (144-131-2 record over 25 years) ended with back-to-back 2-9 marks. Babers, who served on Spoo's staff in 1987, is rebuilding the foundation. He inherits a veteran team. The Panthers committed to the pass last year, which plays right into Babers' scheme, a high-tempo offense which helped Robert Griffin III win the Heisman Trophy at Baylor last season (Babers was the wide receivers coach). QB Garappolo has thrown for 4,283 yards and 34 touchdowns over the last two seasons. He has a deep receiving corps which includes the top pass catcher from 2010 (Lora) and 2011 (Wright) as well as a superb tight end (Wise). The offensive line returns four starters, and opponents can't forget Walker, who rushed for 10 TDs. The Panthers forced over nine turnovers last season, the conference low. They will follow the lead of Dowdell, the best pass rusher among OVC defensive linemen. The return of a veteran secondary will allow Dowdell to remain on an elite level. The Panthers play three of their first four conference games at home. They don't play Tennessee State, giving them only seven OVC games.
Aug. 30 - vs. Southern Illinois
Sept. 8 - at Western Michigan
Sept. 15 - at Illinois State
Sept. 22 - vs. Murray State
Sept. 29 - vs. Austin Peay
Oct. 6 - at UT-Martin
Oct. 13 - vs. Jacksonville State
Oct. 27 - at Eastern Kentucky
Nov.. 3 - at Tennessee Tech
Nov. 10 - vs. Southeast Missouri State
Nov. 17 - at Central Arkansas
9. AUSTIN PEAY GOVERNORS (3-8 overall, 2-6 OVC)
COACH: Rick Christophel (18-37 in five seasons at Austin Peay)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (7 offense/9 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Devin Stark, Sr. (53 receptions, 627 yards, 7 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: GS Antwaun Majors, Sr. (88 TT, 2 TFL, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jake Ryan, Sr.
RB Wesley Kitts, Sr. (84 carries, 496 yards, 2 TD)
RB Earl Pemberton, So. (35 carries, 171 yards, 1 TD)
FB Cody Tucker, Sr.
WR/KR Terrence Oliver, Jr. (15 receptions, 120 yards)
WR Darryl Clack, So. (6 receptions, 107 yards, 1 TD)
WR Jamaar Embry, So. (11 receptions, 123 yards, 1 TD)
TE Preston Rouse, Sr. (7 receptions, 40 yards)
TE Ashlon Adams, Sr. (10 receptions, 114 yards)
LT Julian Virgo, R-Fr.
LG Gavin Willisson, So.
C Jacob Langston, Sr.
RG Chris Hartman, Jr.
RG O.C. Brown, So. (Southern Mississippi transfer)
RT Ben Stansfield, Jr.
DE Anthony Marion, Sr. (24 TT)
DE Earnest Smith, Jr. (33 TT, 4 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 FR)
DE Rip Rowan, Jr. (24 TT, 6 TFL, 2 QBH, 1 FR, 1 BK)
DT Isoua Siliva, So. (19 TT, 4 TFL, 2 sacks)
NT Reese Bulmash, Jr.
DE Earnest Smith, Jr.
LB Darrick Dilliard, Sr. (52 TT, 4 TFL)
LB Josh Carroll, Jr. (76 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH)
LB Craig Salley, Sr. (35 TT, 3 TFL, 3 QBH)
LB Zach Burkhart, GS (22 TT, 1.5 TFL, 2 FR)
CB Steven Ragin, Jr. (25 TT, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FF)
CB Tyreon Clark, Jr.
FS Jonathan Shuler, So.
SS EnRiques Perry, Jr. (40 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks)
WS Steven Rich, So. (33 TT, 1 FR)
PK Stephen Stansell, Sr. (10-of-19 FG, 23-of-23 PAT)
P Ben Campbell, So. (53 punts, 37.6 ypp)
KR/WR Tyler Clendensen, Sr.
BIGGEST LOSS: RB Ryan White (236 carries, 1,100 yards, 6 TD; 25 receptions, 179 yards, 1 TD)
OUTLOOK: Christophel has struggled to get the Austin Peay program on track and probably faces a pivotal season (after a 7-4 start in 2007, he's had four straight seasons of two to four wins). It doesn't help Christophel's cause that the Governors open the campaign with back-to-back FBS opponents and then a road conference opener. He wants his team to play aggressively after finishing last in the OVC in scoring offense (18.8 ppg) and second-to-last in scoring defense (36 ppg). Ironically, the leaders on each side of the ball, QB Ryan and SS Majors, are both graduate students. The loss of White in the backfield is big, meaning Ryan will look even more for Stark (6-3, 206), who is coming off a breakout season with 53 receptions - third-best in the OVC. The offensive line returns only two starters, although it has good size. The defense returns 10 of last year's top 12 tackle leaders, paced by Majors, the former walk-on. Stansell is two field goals shy of tying Tom McMillan (33) for the Austin Peay career record.
Sept. 1 - at Western Kentucky
Sept. 8 - at Virginia Tech
Sept. 15 - at Tennessee State
Sept. 22 - vs. UT Martin
Sept. 29 - at Eastern Illinois
Oct. 6 - vs. Murray State
Oct. 13 - at Eastern Kentucky
Oct. 27 - vs. Southeast Missouri State
Nov. 3 - vs. Culver-Stockton
Nov. 10 - at Jacksonville State
Nov. 17 - vs. Tennessee Tech