With less than 10 weeks to the kickoff of the 2014 football season, we’re looking at the big questions facing each coach before practices begin across the Ohio Valley Conference.
Let’s be honest: there’s only one direction for Austin Peay to go. The Governors finished last season without a win to their name, only really even challenging struggling Southeast Missouri. It wasn’t the first year head coach Kirby Cannon hoped for, but sadly, the one many expected for an Austin Peay team without a winning season since 2007.
If Cannon is the man to turn the team’s fortune’s around, he’ll have to find a way to boost an offense that was last in the conference, by far, a year ago.
Here are four burning questions surrounding the Governors’ outlook in 2014:
1. Is Special Teams the answer for the struggling offense
At last year’s OVC Media Day, Cannon said that a strong special teams would help take pressure off an offense he, and everyone else, expected to struggle. The results were…mixed at best. Austin Peay was middle of the pack in kickoff returns, but dead last in punt returns. Their kicking game didn’t do the team many more favors either.
But there’s a larger question to ask: is special teams even the right focus? The difference between the top and worst team in kickoff return average last year in the OVC was just seven yards; Austin Peay was just three yards behind leaders Murray State. Only three kickoffs all year were returned for touchdowns, with no team notching more than one. Short answer: kickoff returns simply aren’t dynamic enough to make a huge difference.
Punt returns are a different story. The top team in the league, Eastern Illinois, averaged 20 yards per punt return, and ran back four for touchdowns. Austin Peay, which attempted just six punt returns all year, netted 28 yards. Total. All year.
Do they have the talent to match Eastern Illinois’ lofty numbers? I’d be surprised. But even the best case scenario might have only made a one-win difference in the end.
2. How dynamic can new quarterback Trey Taylor be?
Last season’s quarterback-by-committee system in Clarksville was, for lack of a better term, a complete failure, as none of the three signal callers proved a consistent threat. This year, that could change. The Governors have a new QB in Central Arkansas transfer Trey Taylor, who was 17-22 for 142 yards in this spring’s Red-White game, leading multiple 70-yard touchdown drives with the first team offense. Sure, the fact that it’s a spring game has to be taken into account here, but it’s a positive sign for an offense that gained fewer than 3,000 yards last season.
The second part of this, though, is where does he get help from. Most of the team’s leading receivers are back, but it’s hard to evaluate exactly how talented they can be based on the QB play last year. They have lost their top two rushers last season, meaning they’ll have to rely on unproven talent in the run game.
We all know how important the quarterback is in football, especially at the college level. Taylor’s play could go a long way in helping turn around the Governors fortunes.
3. Can the offense help the struggling defense?
Austin Peay’s defense wasn’t exactly stellar last year. The Governors were 7th in yards allowed, although their per play average was tied for the worst in the league, and those numbers were likely muted somewhat by teams with big leads playing conservative in the fourth quarter. Their scoring defense: last, thanks in part to an offense that struggled to move the football.
Obviously, Austin Peay needs to score more, but they also need to to benefit the defense. Austin Peay punted 89 times last year, most in the league by double-digits. The biggest problem: way too many came from inside their own 30. Or 20. Or 10.
You don’t have to score on every possession. But you need to move the ball. Austin Peay struggled so much with that last year, that they put their defense in impossible situation after impossible situation. The defense wasn’t particularly great last year. But I’m not certain they were as bad as their scoring defense numbers may show.
4. Is an 0-6 start all but inevitable
If you’re looking for ‘winnable’ games on paper, you have to get deep into the Governors schedule. They start the season at Memphis, host a Chattanooga team coming off an 8-4 year, travel to Eastern Illinois and Illinois State, host Eastern Kentucky, and then travel to Mercer. While not quite the gauntlet from last season, the conference schedule doesn’t really do them any favors to getting off to a quick start, as EIU and EKU are widely expected to be top-4 teams.
EKU last year proved they could be upset, and you get them in Clarksville. That may be the best bet to enter the heart of conference play with a “1” in front of their record.
BONUS: Are there any more sinkholes underneath the stadium?
Seriously, you didn’t expect me to get through an entire Austin Peay preview article without mentioning this, did you?