We’re just about 48 hours away from the end of the summer, and the start of football season. It’s an interesting time for the OVC — the conference is coming off arguably it’s most successful season in history, but does so with a lot of uncertainty.
Here are 10 things we’ve learned from this fall’s training camps.
1) PICKING A STARTING QUARTERBACK IS HARD — In fact, it’s so challenging, that about half the teams in the OVC just…haven’t. For the second straight year, UT Martin and Jacksonville State will run two-quarterback systems, after doing so with varying success the year before. Eastern Illinois claims they have a starter, but aren’t going to tell anyone who it is, and it doesn’t fully matter because they’re also joining the two-quarterback club for the season opener at Minnesota. Eastern Kentucky says their starter will be a game day decision, but I wouldn’t be shocked if both got playing time in the opener.
We’re not sure if Tennessee State has made a choice, either. Theirs for Week 1 was made for them, in a way, by Ronald Butler violating team rules.
Of teams with expected quarterback battles, only SEMO and Murray State actually named their week 1 starters.
Guys, this is hard stuff.
1A) NO IT’S NOT. THIS IS WHAT COACHES ARE PAID TO DO. — If you say so.
1B) SERIOUSLY, THEIR JOBS RELY ON SPLIT-SECOND DECISION MAKING. — Yes.
1C)YOU’RE TOTALLY LETTING THEM OFF THE HOOK FOR THIS. — Again. Hard.
2) EASTERN ILLINOIS WAS A TWO MAN SHOW LAST YEAR? — Everyone is down on the Panthers this year, and in a way, rightfully so. Jimmy Garoppolo and Erik Lora were once a generation players, who you happened to be on the same team at the same time, and able to produce fantastic results under the right system.
There’s no denying this is a year of change. And let’s be honest — most people hate change. We have our routines, and when we can’t follow them, our day is thrown off a bit. Is EIU the same team as last year? No. But they have two former FBS starting quarterbacks battling to go under center. No other OVC team can say that. Shepard Little is an all-conference running back. Their new head coach is no slouch, although known for his defensive prowess rather than the run-and-gun we became used to seeing the last two years. (Although he’ll tell you he loves flashy offenses.) I don’t think EIU will rise to the level they were last year — but maybe we should all hold off on writing their obituary just yet.
2A) JACKSONVILLE STATE’S ROSTER FEELS VERY FAMILIAR — Even their new coach is a former JSU assistant. If you don’t think that’s a small sliver of the reason they’re picked to win the conference, you’re fooling yourself. I’m not saying it’s the only reason — JSU is set up to be quite strong. But we believe that, because many of the key cogs of last year’s team are back. Again, familiarity.
3) THIS WILL BE THE YEAR OF DEFENSE…BY DEFAULT — To paraphrase an overused quotation, Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t walking through that door. That’s not just for the Panthers, but for the OVC as a whole. What Eastern Illinois did on the offensive side of the football last year was simply spectacular. 48 points a game. 589 yards of offense. There’s not a team in the OVC that’s going to sniff those kind of offensive numbers across the entire season. Not having *that* game skew team’s numbers are probably going to improve each team’s defensive statistics for the year.
It also doesn’t hurt when you look at the teams picked at the top of the conference — they were the top three defensive teams (in points per game allowed) a season ago.
4) EASTERN KENTUCKY’S HEAD COACH WANTS YOU TO KNOW HE HAS A CORNERBACK BATTLE — He also has a battle at nose tackle. Oh, there may be one at quarterback also, as mentioned previously. But he really wants you to know the other two.
EKU is an interesting case this year. They’re coming off a 6-6 year, one in which they never really felt like an OVC contender. They’ve brought in a Cincinnati transfer, but have a solid returning quarterback in Jared McClain. But here’s the bottom line — the offense was stagnant far too often last year. Maybe a change is in order, not for the sake of change, but for giving opponents a different look. McClain isn’t going anywhere — and you can always return to him if things don’t go as you hope.
5) MURRAY’S STATE SOLUTION TO DEFENSE – “YOU KNOW, OUR OFFENSE WASN’T THAT GOOD LAST YEAR — That’s an actual answer from Murray State head coach Chris Hatcher when asked about the team’s defense at OVC Media Day. Yep — the defense’s problem last season, allowing a league worst 479 yards a game, really had to do with all those plays where they were on the bench. Watching the offense.
Good offense can help a defense. I don’t think anyone’s arguing otherwise. But there may be a reason Murray State has struggled to contend for a title during the “Hatch Attack” years.
6) TENNESSEE TECH MAY BE THE ULTIMATE OVC SLEEPER — There is actually no sarcasm intended there at all. Tennessee Tech –the same TTU squad that finished 2-6 in conference last year, may be a team to watch out for.
One thing that happens every year is that the media, myself included, pay way more attention to what’s happening at the top of the league standings, and little to what’s happening at the bottom. Last season, TTU endured one of the most injury-plagued seasons I can ever remember. According to head coach Watson Brown, his team’s starting offense was different in every game last year. Different starting quarterbacks — different wide outs — different linemen. The team didn’t go a game without losing someone, for some period of time.
Many of those guys, including quarterback Darian Stone, are back. Barring injury — a tall task — TTU could be more of a challenge than many expect.
7) NCAA AUTONOMY WILL DESTROY THE OVC — No it won’t.
7A) SERIOUSLY, YOU WASTED A WHOLE NUMBER ON THAT. — It’s important. Very important actually. NCAA Athletics are about to change in big ways. Bigger ways than most of us have seen in our lifetime. But the idea that smaller conference’s won’t be able to adjust is somewhat silly.
7B) BUT I READ NO FCS ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT MADE MONEY IN 2013 — That’s true. It’s also been the norm for many years now. Sports are expensive. Not every FBS Athletic Department made money in 2013. In fact, most of them lost money as well, including those in major conferences.
7C) SO WHY DO COLLEGES STILL HAVE SPORTS? — Well, the definition of “made money” is small, for one. It doesn’t count things like added attendance, and increased profile. (Which means increased donations — although those often go into a school’s “General Fund,” not directly to athletics.)
8) TSU IS FLYING UNDER THE RADAR — Seriously, we’ve barely mentioned them, and we’re nearly at the bottom of this post. Most people I’ve talked to think Tennessee State is going to be good. Few think they’re an OVC contender. Which is odd — they were picked second at OVC Media Day, after all. Michael German is back under center. But the defense, which head coach Rod Reed is known for, is quite young. Two NFL-quality prospects from last year were drafted. There are some questions — but unless a team like JSU or EIU is ready to run the table (which I don’t think either are) Tennessee State could well be in the mix the final few weeks.
8A) HOW ABOUT UT MARTIN? — I really like head coach Jason Simpson. I really do. I just don’t understand how doing the same thing you did last year — running a two-quarterback system with the SAME TWO GUYS, is supposed to produce a better result. We just went down this road. You missed the FCS Playoffs in a year three teams got in. Odds aren’t for three teams getting in again this year, if I’m entirely honest. I go back to the “definition” of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Maybe he’ll prove me wrong. (Wouldn’t be the first time) But I’m skeptical.
9) AUSTIN PEAY IS OUT TO PROVE NOT ALL 0-12 SEASONS ARE EQUAL? — I hate picking on Austin Peay. It’s like picking on the mentally handicapped kid in class — he can’t help it, and it’s just mean. But when a sportwriter actually writes that the Governors, coming off a winless year, are “rebuilding,” I can’t help but point out the absurdity of the argument. Yes, Austin Peay is YOUNG — 41 newcomers according to their head coach. But you can’t “rebuild” before you’ve “built.” A requirement for redoing anything is that it has been done previously.
All this being said, could their “should be an all-time record low” 7.5 points per game last year really be in jeopardy? It’s not, right?
10) WEEK ONE IS BORING…AND I’LL STILL LOVE IT — Not that it’s boring, but because it’s football. I don’t care that I’ll be setting the unofficial spread for eight of the nine games at 30+ points. It’s football. That’s all that matters at this point.