Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The highs and lows of Ohio Valley Conference football have been magnified through overachieving and underachieving ways during the last two FCS postseasons.
Two years ago, the OVC ended a playoff drought that dated to 2000, and it did so in spectacular fashion. The OVC was the only FCS conference to have three different schools win playoff games, led by Jacksonville State reaching the national quarterfinals.
Jax State had even bigger aspirations last season, but this time it failed miserably in losing its first playoff game at home (to Sam Houston State) as the No. 3 seed.
As the conference regroups, half of the players to earn All-OVC first- and second-team honors last season will be returning. So it figures to be a strong season, and with some playoffs wins likely.
Here's a look across the OVC with spring practices getting underway across the nation:
There's a new sheriff at Murray State as offensive coordinator Mitch Stewart was promoted in the wake of Chris Hatcher's departure to Samford. Stewart says he wants his team to get tougher and create a hard edge about it.
Jacksonville State returns 16 starters (seven on offense, nine on defense) from a team that went unbeaten in its OVC schedule. The home playoff loss surely has the Gamecocks motivated.
Tennessee State had a bitterly disappointing 6-6 record last season and must replace eight starters on defense. The Tigers got away from running the ball regularly and might have to turn back to it with the loss of all-time passing leader Michael German.
Injuries played a big part in Austin Peay's continued struggles, although the youthful Governors beat Murray State for their first and only win in coach Kirby Cannon's two seasons. Trey Taylor began (knee injury in opener) and ended the season as the starting quarterback with Darrien Boone and Mickey Macius mixed in with starts before they also suffered injuries. The Governors will continue to grow up this season.
Last season, Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown introduced his unique offense with a second quarterback spread wide - the QW position. But the Golden Eagles never had the right combination on the offensive line as they finished second- to-last in the OVC in both scoring offense (19.8 points per game) and total offense (277.1 yards per game), and last in sacks allowed (36). They need better line play after the loss of QW Darian Stone.
Speaking of O-line play, there was nothing wrong with it at UT Martin last season. But the consistently good program lost five key seniors up front, including four starters, and coach Jason Simpson has to rebuild there quickly.
After getting to the FCS playoffs for a 21st time (second-most to Montana), Eastern Kentucky should like that it has eight returning starters on each side of the ball. But quarterback Bennie Coney must still prove he can run the offense consistently.
A more acclimated Jalen Whitlow at quarterback means a better season at Eastern Illinois, which went from 12-2 in 2013 to 5-7 last year. But the former Kentucky signal caller will miss throwing to wide receiver Adam Drake and tight end Jeff LePak.
Southeast Missouri highlighted coach Tom Matukewicz's first season with an upset of Southeastern Louisiana and a spot in the Top 25. If a new quarterback settles in, he will have excellent weapons in wide receiver Paul McRoberts, who missed five games last season due to a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, and running back DeMichael Jackson.
Both the OVC's offensive and defensive players of the year return in Eastern Kentucky running back Dy'Shawn Mobley and Jacksonville State defensive tackle Devaunte Sigler, respectively.
It's a big season for top returning quarterbacks and Murray State's KD Humphries is one of the more underrated ones in the FCS. He led the OVC in passing yards (3,483), touchdown passes (27) and total offense (306.5 yards per game) last season. He has a terrific receiving corps back as well.
Linebacker is a strength at Tennessee Tech, especially with the return of 2013 tackles leader Tra'Darius Goff from injury.
Even with the departure of All-American running back DaMarcus James, Jacksonville State still has the tag team of Troymaine Pope and Miles Jones in its backfield.
Southeast Missouri features one of the best place-kickers in the FCS in Ryan McCrum, who drilled 18 field goals, including four over 50 yards.
Murray State linebacker Jonathan Jackson ranked fouth in the FCS with 12.3 tackles per game last year, and he still have two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Eastern Kentucky always has good offensive linemen, and this year's anchor is left tackle Brett Eyckmans, who has made 31 straight starts.
Eastern Illinois returns a standout running back in Shepard Little, but he might have to share the ball with FBS transfers Devin Church (Illinois) and Korliss Marshall (Arkansas).
There are plenty of candidates among Tennessee Tech running backs. The returnees include Ladarius Vanlier, an All-American on punt returns, Radir Anoor and Willie Davis. But redshirt freshman Dorian Carter may be the most talented of the bunch.
Kyle Snyder gave Southeast Missouri some much-needed solid play at quarterback last season. Now that he is gone, Snyder could be replaced by last year's backup, Alex Niznak, or transfer Tay Bender from JUCO powerhouse Iowa Western Community College.
Tennessee State junior quarterback Ronald Butler has seen plenty of action the last two seasons, but he's been inconsistent, and the Tigers have a redshirt freshman, Oshay Ackerman-Carter, who could force himself into the starter's job. He's a pocket passer, more like German than Butler.
FIVE BREAKOUT PERFORMERS
Defensive end Noah Spencer ran into trouble at Ohio State and then said he would declare for the NFL Draft, but he's landed at Eastern Kentucky and hoping to repair his image.
Tennessee State cornerback Bernell Brooks played in the shadow of Daniel Fitzpatrick and De'Ante Saunders in the Tigers' secondary last season and now takes over the leadership role of the unit.
Opponents were starting to get to know Austin Peay freshman running back Otis Gerron before he was sidelined by a concussion. They will get a closer look at him this season.
UT Martin transfer linebacker Nick Dance worked his way into the picture last season behind seniors Tony Bell and Devontay Barnett. The "Dance" floor is all his this season.
The loss of Stone at Tennessee Tech makes the production of wide receiver Brock McCoin, who played QW as a freshman, even more important this year.
NUMBERS NEVER LIE
Austin Peay scored 26 more points last season than in 2013, but its 9.7-point average was the lowest in the FCS. It converted only 24.7 percent of third downs - also the national low.
A failure to stop the run led to Murray State finishing last in the conference in total defense (511.2 yards per game) and time of possession (21:48) and second-to-last in scoring defense (42.5 points per game).
At Southeast Missouri, the Redhawks are looking to fix some sloppy play - a minus-nine turnover margin and the second-most penalties (77) in the OVC last season.
Only two of the nine OVC teams had positive turnover margins, Eastern Kentucky at plus-three and Eastern Illinois at plus-one. That's a point of emphasis for everyone.
The OVC, with nine programs, was the only FCS conference to have five teams rush for more than 200 yards per game - Jacksonville State (a conference-high 285.3 yards per game), Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, UT Martin and Southeast Missouri.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
With 2014 records in parentheses
Austin Peay (1-11, 1-7): March 17-April 11
Eastern Illinois (5-7, 5-3): March 24-April 25
Eastern Kentucky (9-4, 6-2): April 6-30
Jacksonville State (10-2, 8-0): March 2-April 11
Murray State (3-9, 1-7): April 1-24
Southeast Missouri State (5-7, 3-5): March 10-April 18
Tennessee State (6-6, 3-5): March 16-April 11
Tennessee Tech (5-7, 4-4): March 17-April 11
UT Martin (6-6, 5-3): March 17-April 15