Jacksonville State preseason favorite again to win OVC title

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Losing in the national championship game, while playing poorly on offense, is all the motivation Jacksonville State coach John Grass has needed this offseason for his Gamecocks.

Jacksonville State took a 12-game winning streak into the FCS title game in January only to leave with a 37-10 loss to North Dakota State. So being named the preseason favorite yet again to win the Ohio Valley Conference championship for a third straight season is nice, but the Gamecocks have something much bigger in mind.

''Our goal is national championship,'' Gamecocks quarterback Eli Jenkins said Monday. ''That's always been our goal since coach Grass came on the scene is a national championship. I want to see all the work we put in over the summer, I want to see how it builds up and how we go into this season.''

The Gamecocks, who received 16 of 18 first-place votes, is the league's preseason pick as champ for a third straight year and the fifth in the past seven years in voting announced Monday at OVC media day. Jacksonville State has won the OVC title the past two seasons with at least a share in three of the past five.

Last season, Jacksonville State became the first OVC team to be ranked No. 1 in the country since 1999 while going 13-2 and the league's first to play in the national championship game since 1982. The Gamecocks have gone undefeated in league play the past two seasons, and Grass is 23-4 in two seasons at Jacksonville State.

Now Grass has to replace five starters on offense and eight on defense. But he has the league's preseason picks for players of the year in Jenkins and defensive lineman Darius Jackson back to help. Jenkins threw for 2,788 yards with 21 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, and he also ran for 1,161 yards and 15 TDs.

Jacksonville State lost leading rusher Troymaine Pope to graduation along with Miles Jones. But Grass loaded up this offseason with four FBS transfers led by Auburn running back Roc Thomas, cornerback Al Harris Jr. from South Carolina, Kevin Spears from LSU and offensive lineman Darius Anderson from East Carolina. Josh Clemons, a Kentucky transfer, received another year of eligibility after a foot injury.

''Jacksonville State certainly is the one with the bull's eye on their back right now because they have won it the last couple years, and they have some great players returning,'' Eastern Kentucky coach Mark Elder said. ''But top to bottom, this is a very competitive conference.''

Eastern Illinois, which also reached the FCS playoffs last season, received the other two first-place votes. The Panthers are predicted to finish third behind Eastern Kentucky followed by UT Martin, Southeast Missouri, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Murray State and Austin Peay. Eastern Illinois won the OVC title in 2012 and 2013, and the Panthers' lone league loss last season came to Jacksonville State. They visit the Gamecocks on Oct. 29.

''We want that trophy back in our house,'' Eastern Illinois senior offensive lineman Ethan Kanz said. ''They absolutely earned it. They're a great program. They have a lot coming back. ... It definitely motivates us. We're looking forward to playing them.''

Eastern Kentucky is one of three OVC teams with a new head coach. Tennessee Tech replaced Watson Brown with Marcus Satterfield, and Austin Peay coach Will Healy is the second-youngest coach in Division I at the age of 31.