The countdown ramps up this week, with one a day finishing up on the first Saturday of the college football season. Number 6 on my list are the Tigers of Tennessee State.
Being in the middle of preseason polls is kind of a lonely place to be. Everyone’s talking about the teams at the top, and who is a real competitor. And the teams at the bottom are beating their collective chests, saying they will surprise people this year.
And there are teams like Tennessee State. Not picked high enough to be considered a threat, not picked low enough to really feel like the underdog, and because of that, let’s be honest: how many starters can anyone living outside of Nashville name?
How many starters can college football fans in Nashville name.
Sometimes, teams like this are the real dangerous ones. The ones no one is really paying attention to. No high profile transfers getting headlines. No preseason award hype.
Just a team working to get better.
A team that last year was just on the outside looking in.
After finishing winless in the OVC in 2010, a new quarterback, Michael German took the reigns, helping the Tigers to a .500 record in the conference.
Not bad for a freshman. Neither were his nearly 1900 yards, and 12 touchdowns versus just 7 interceptions, stats helping him become a finalist for the Jerry Rice award, given to the best freshman in FCS football.
And he didn’t have a veteran running back to rely on either. Travis Ward ran for 978 yards, the only sophomore to lead his team in rushing, much less finish in the top 10 in the conference.
The duo helped the Tigers finish 3rd in third in total offense, and 4th in scoring last season.
In all, it’s hard to see an offense returning nine offensive starters getting worse, as long as German can avoid the often aptly named “sophomore slump”
One of those losses was one of the top targets in the conference, Calvin McNairl.
Senior Devin Wilson is expected to lead the wide receiver corps this year, and while he was a great target last season, he wasn’t a great target in the red zone, catching just 2 touchdown passes. In fact, 5’10″Travis James caught more than double the touchdowns of Wilson, despite just 27 receptions. James returns as well for the Tigers.
It may sound like the Tigers could contend for the best offense in the OVC, but I not convinced they actually will.
Sure, German should improve, especially on his 56% completion percentage. But will he be better than Tennessee Tech’s Tre Lamb? UT Martin’s Derrick Carr? JSU returning quarterback Marques Ivory? Murray State’s quarterback Casey Brockman? He’s going to be improved, but so should all 8 returning OVC quarterbacks, and I don’t see him necessarily rising above this crop. And I want to see what happens when he’s forced to throw 350 or more passes this year; In 2011, he only threw 250, taking over the starting role mid-season.
And while I love Ward’s chances of being a top 3, or maybe even a top 2 back in the OVC this year, it’s imperative he stays healthy. No other returning rusher had 200 yards last season.
Junior defensive end Antonio Harper earned a spot on the Preseason All-OVC team this season after finishing 2nd in the league with 6.5 sacks a season ago.
The rest of the defense will feature many new names on week 1. Only 5 starters on the defensive side, including Harper, return this year, and for a team that allowed over 32 points a game and a league high 442 yards a game, you’d be right to be somewhat seriously concerned about this side of the ball when the Tigers take the field to start the season.
And it wasn’t just weak against the run or the pass: it allowed teams to do both fairly easily.
But it’s especially the passing that concerns me. As has been mentioned more than once this year, this is poised at the “Year of the Quarterback.” And last year’s experienced defense allowed 263 yards through the air a game, 40 more than every other team.
Throw in 6 new starters to the mix? Things could get dicey.
One of their strengths last season was their ability to force turnovers, especially fumbles. Turnovers can often be fleeting, but they could be necessary to take some pressure of their young defense.
Special Teams Note
Sophomore return specialist Weldon Garlington is one of just two sophomores on the Preseason All-OVC Team, and he’s there for good reason. Garlington returned both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown last season.
At this point, every team and every pick could burn me. All 6 teams at the top of the conference have the talent to possibly win the conference, including Tennessee State.
But I’m a firm believer that defense wins championships, and even though the offense will be improved, I’m unsure that it will be improved enough to make up for the defense. You’re only going to win so many games 42-40, the Tigers final over league champions Tennessee Tech last season.
But there’s always fear in the unknown. And their relative anonymity this summer could cause teams to look past them.
That won’t last long if they start this season like they finished the last.