Let’s go back to 2013 for a moment. The OVC was becoming the kings of one-and-done in the FCS playoffs, having not won a game since 2000. Eastern Illinois made it to the quarterfinals that year, led by now NFL QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Since then, JSU has made back-to-back playoff appearances, winning one game in 2014, and making it all the way to the FCS title game last season. Things have changed in this league, and quickly.
As we wrap up our series, here’s three reasons why JSU not only can win the OVC, but why they probably will repeat for the third straight season.
1. Look at all the talent
Where do you even begin here? JSU swept the preseason all-OVC player of the year selections with QB Eli Jenkins and DL Darius Jackson. Eight additional players joined the preseason all-conference team, giving JSU more than double the selections of any other team in the league.
…and then there are the FBS transfers. Guys like former Auburn running back, and five-star recruit Roc Thomas, former South Carolina corner back Al Harris Jr., and former LSU wide receiver Kevin Spears. That is not, by the way, even close to a complete list.
Jenkins deserves special mention in this list. The returning All-American racked up nearly 4,000 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns a year ago, including 15 on the ground — and if JSU continues to rack up the wins like they have during head coach John Grass’ tenure, he will almost certainly be in the running for national player of the year.
We haven’t even mentioned Josh Barge (pictured above) yet — who set a school record a year ago in catches in a season. He has at least one catch in 40 straight games, which is four away from tying the all-time OVC record. And three of the team’s starting offensive lineman return from last year: Casey Dunn, Justin Lea, and Dylan Cline, who were all preseason all-OVC selections.
if JSU continues to rack up the wins…[Jenkins] will almost certainly be in the running for national player of the year.
Three preseason all-OVC selections return on defense, including Jackson, but the other eight starters are all gone. We’ll call that ‘hope’ for the other eight teams in the league
2. Who are the challengers, anyway?
Every team chasing JSU has, on paper, at least one glaring issue. EKU’s defense was great last year, but they’ve only got three starters returning. EIU’s offense struggled last year, and they’ve only got two inexperienced options to replace Jalen Whitlow at quarterback. UT Martin also has questions under center, and lost more than half their starters on both sides of the ball.
A lot can change from last season — but right now, there’s not one team you point to and say ‘this is the team that beats JSU.’
3. They just did it, and a whole lot more
You can’t discount the value of a deep playoff run. It means more games, more practices — more experience. It means the returnees are more used to high pressure situations, to must-win games. These are things you can’t really ‘teach.’ You become better in those situations by being in them more.
It’s also a way to breed more confidence. Two-year players haven’t lost a conference game — they expect to win. It creates an attitude that makes an already talented team that much tougher to beat.
And then there’s the fact that there’s still something left to accomplish. Five-time defending FCS champions North Dakota State are going to lose a championship game eventually. After last year’s bitter loss, JSU would like to be the team to make that happen.