By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Nashville, TN (Sports Network) - The purpose of the Sgt. York Trophy is to recognize the winner of the season series between the four Ohio Valley Conference programs in Tennessee.
If the players on the winning team use it in their offseason weight training, that's just an added bonus.
The trophy, which has been presented since 2007 and weighs in around 100 pounds, usually requires several people to lug it around.
That's nothing, though, compared to the weight bearing down on the programs at Austin Peay, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and UT Martin as they try to be relevant in the OVC title race.
Not surprisingly, when the OVC unveiled its preseason poll on Monday at its football media day in Music City, there was nothing resembling a victory song for the Tennessee rivals. They held four of the five lowest spots - Tennessee Tech picked fifth, UT Martin sixth, Tennessee State eighth and Austin Peay ninth and last.
Jacksonville State garnered 13 of the 18 first-place votes and the No. 1 spot, followed by Murray State, Eastern Kentucky and defending champion Southeast Missouri. Breaking up the Tennessee programs was Eastern Illinois at No. 7.
"One thing is you look at the state of Tennessee as five FCS schools," UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson said. "We have to divide up all the high school players between all five of our schools, even though Chattanooga, which I coached at, is in the Southern Conference. So you do that, and then you're dividing the BCS transfers - a lot of players that come down - it can make it very difficult for the state of Tennessee to keep that competitive edge and to stay first or second in the league. To me, that's first and foremost, the challenge that the state of Tennessee OVC schools face."
Still, that's not the true trophy any of the four want to hoist at the end of its season.
Tennessee Tech last won the OVC title in 1975 and has never appeared in the FCS playoffs. Austin Peay last won the OVC title in 1977 and hasn't appeared in the playoffs. Tennessee State last won the OVC title and appeared in the playoffs in 1999. UT Martin has been the most successful in recent years, winning the OVC title and appearing in the playoffs in 2006, with a near miss in '08.
While the depth of the race works against the OVC's four Tennessee programs, what Southeast Missouri State accomplished last season can serve as inspiration. The Redhawks were installed in seventh-place tie, but reversed a 2-9 season in 2009 with nine wins and their first OVC championship and playoff appearance.
"I think it's this league," SEMO head coach Tony Samuel, the 2010 Eddie Robinson Award winner, which goes to the FCS coach of the year, is presented by The Sports Network and sponsored by Fathead.com, said of the depth.
"This is going into the sixth season that I've been here (and) I couldn't have said that the first couple years. There were maybe two, three teams - maybe four - that if you said one of those top teams is going to make it - and at one point it was top two - they were going to win it. I don't think you can say that anymore."
Tennessee Tech's hope for a breakout season will draw off a big senior class that has a sense of urgency. The Golden Eagles used a fourth-quarter rally from 17 points down to stun Jacksonville State last November, and ruin the Gamecocks' chance for an OVC title.
Head coach Watson Brown was so impressed by the fast pace that he is switching to a multiple spread offense. The Golden Eagles are calling it the "Fastest 40 Minutes in Football."
"I don't know if we have the best team in the league, but we're probably the deepest team," Brown said. "And I think we need to use that."
Tennessee Tech won the 2009 Sgt. York Trophy and Brown displayed it that offseason on a stand outside his program's football office.
A plant now sits in that spot.
"I miss the trophy," senior linebacker Jake McIntosh said. "It's a nice plant, it's pretty, purple and gold, Tech colors. But it's not as pretty as the York Trophy."
All-OVC senior wide receiver Tim Benford, though, added the trophy is "just a step for reaching our goals."
Simpson is by far the most successful of the head coaches at the OVC's Tennessee schools. He's been .500 or better in each of his first five seasons at UT Martin, for a combined 25-14 record.
He just laments the Skyhawks failing to remain among the conference's best on a consistent basis.
"I like this team, it's one of our better teams that we've had in the last five years, so we certainly have high expectations, although maybe the other coaches and SIDs don't. We'll have a good team."
UT Martin will be tested right away as it opens its season at Jacksonville State on Sept. 1. Simpson likes the speed on his defense so much, that he believes the unit that led the OVC in total defense last season can be even better. Plus his offense has many returning players in the skills positions, including junior quarterback Derek Carr.
"I know we're ranked (farther down) in the poll," Carr said. "We have a lot of experience coming back, so I expect that to work well for us."
Tennessee State needs to rebound from its winless OVC debut under head coach Rod Reed. The Tigers managed only 14.4 points per game, but senior linebacker Rico Council puts the onus of the season on his side of the ball.
And when the OVC's preseason co-defensive player of the year is saying that, then he should have the attention of everybody on his team to play better.
"We had a bad season last year," Council said. "Not to point the blame, but our defense didn't play as well as we should. This year, we're coming together and trying to bring the tradition back with good defense. They picked us to finish eighth in the conference this year. We just want to prove them all the way wrong."
Success, he added, "takes a lot of hard work. You have to keep players in your system and keep them in your system for four years. That's been kind of like the problem that we've been having. But we have a new coach now. It's just his second year and he's doing better with the academic part, so players can make it to the end."
"We don't want to be individuals," senior quarterback Jeremy Perry said. "I think this year we'll surprise a lot of people with our camaraderie and just how we uphold our form of brotherhood."
While Tennessee State finished in last place a season ago, the team picked there this season - Austin Peay - has only 11 seniors. Head coach Rick Christophel and the Governors lost running back Terrence Holt, the NCAA's all- time leading kick return yardage specialist, but bring back senior running back Ryan White, who has 2,450 career rushing yards.
"We didn't get picked the highest, of course, but we had a great, great spring with a good summer. So we're expected big things out of this team," junior center Tim Schmid said. "We had a lot of good talent. We had a couple new coaches added to our team. So, hopefully, we can get everything together now."
"I really think it's going to take a commitment to the program, buying into your coaches," senior safety Amius Smith said. "The mind-set of the team, you take all the players to buy into it and focus of having one goal."
"Just be on the lookout," for Austin Peay, Smith added.
OVC PRESEASON POLL (Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)
1. Jacksonville State (13 first-place votes), 123 points
2. Murray State (4), 106
3. Eastern Kentucky, 93
4. Southeast Missouri State (1), 81
5. Tennessee Tech, 73
6. UT Martin, 64
7. Eastern Illinois, 57
8. Tennessee State, 33
9. Austin Peay, 18
PRESEASON OVC ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Casey Brockman, QB, Murray State
Defensive Players of the Year - Monte Lewis, DL, Jacksonville State, and Rico Council, LB, Tennessee State
QB - Matt Scheible, Southeast Missouri State
QB - Casey Brockman, Murray State
RB - Mike Harris, Murray
RB - Ryan White, Austin Peay
RB - Dante' Thomas, Tennessee State
WR - Tim Benford, Tennessee Tech
WR - Orlandus Harris, Eastern Kentucky
TE - Kenny Jones, UT Martin
C - Tim Schmid, Austin Peay
OG - Eric Zink, Eastern Illinois
OG - Kadeem Edwards, Tennessee State
OG - Scott Schweitzer, Tennessee Tech
OT - Evan Conrad, Southeast Missouri State
OT - Odie Rush, Jacksonville State
DL - Monte Lewis, Jacksonville State
DL - Emory Attig, Eastern Kentucky
DL - Jamison Wadley, Jacksonville State
DL - Artavious Dowdell, Eastern Illinois
DL - Anthony Brown, Eastern Kentucky
LB - Rico Council, Tennessee State
LB - Tyson Patrick, Eastern Kentucky
LB - Rodney Garrott, Jacksonville State
DB - Jeremy Caldwell, Eastern Kentucky
DB - Keginald Harris, Jacksonville State
DB - Tylor Brock, Southeast Missouri State
DB - Patrick McClellan, Eastern Kentucky
DB - Dontrell Johnson, Murray State
DB - Kendal Harper, UT Martin
PK - Kienan Cullen, Murray State
P - Jordan Berry, Eastern Kentucky
RS - Dontrell Johnson, Murray State