We’ve made it. Week 1 is HERE! Thursday, the college football season kicks off with four OVC games, including national runner up Jacksonville State. What games should get your attention this season? Glad you asked.
All game times are CT
1. Western Illinois at Eastern Illinois (Thursday, 6:00 PM)
This is an FCS-playoff quality contest, and one that could have playoff implications: the Leathernecks enter the season 24th in the FCS Coaches Poll, and Eastern Illinois is the first-team out in that poll.
Western Illinois returns 17 starters from a 7-6 team a year ago (that made the playoffs due in major part to a brutal schedule) including quarterback Trenton Norvell. Norvell is strong arm under center, and has a great target in Lance Lenoir, who had more than 1,184 yards receiving last season.
Eastern Illinois has a lot to prove on offense: sure, they have Devin Church, but the QB battle is far from resolved. (And I wouldn’t bet that whoever is named Week 1 starter is the only QB to see significant playing time this season) The offensive line returns four starters, and the defense loses it’s leaders on defense. EIU faces more than a few questions against a very experienced opponent.
Last year, Western Illinois destroyed the Panthers 33-5.
2. North Alabama at Jacksonville State (Thursday, 6:00 PM)
I don’t think I have to remind JSU fans what happened the last time UNA came to Jacksonville — the Gamecocks needed two overtimes to beat the Division II team 24-21, the first of three straight overtime games that season.
Of course, that’s not all that surprising — these two teams used to be rivals back in the day — when both schools were Division II national powers. While UNA is hoping to make the jump to Division I themselves, they’ve had to watch JSU become National Powers.
I don’t think I have to remind JSU fans what happened the last time UNA came to Jacksonville
JSU head coach John Grass says that the Lions have FCS-playoff quality talent on their roster — but UNA was picked just 15th in the Division II preseason poll. Jacksonville State shouldn’t struggle — but rivalry games often seem to find a way to be closer than they look on paper.
3. Eastern Kentucky at Purdue (Saturday, 11:00 AM)
In my annual rankings of most-likely OVC over FBS upsets, this game came in at No. 3. The Boilermakers are regular Big Ten bottom-dwellers, and EKU are sitting just outside the top-25 in the FCS coaches poll, with an FBS transfer at quarterback in Maty Mauk.
Purdue is making a lot of changes on both sides of the ball, bringing in two new coordinators, and they’re making that change with an all-sophomore backfield. New schemes combined with young players at key positions could give the Colonels some additional opportunities early as the Boilermakers adjust in their first game action of the year.
EKU’s still likely to be a significant underdog, around the 15-20 point range. (S&P projections show Purdue as a 20-point favorite) But Purdue is that kind of team that you never know what you’re going to get on any given week.
4. Arkansas Pine-Bluff at Tennessee State (Saturday, 6:00 PM)
I’m not a big fan of FCS games in NFL stadiums, (it’s just sooo empty) but the John Merritt Classic is just one of three FCS vs FCS games in Week 1 for the OVC, so it goes a bit higher on this list.
TSU is coming off a disappointing year of their own — but the Lions are coming off a two-win season, and haven’t had a winning season since 2012. The season was also the last time these two teams met — when Tennessee State rolled over the Lions 40-13.
Despite their OVC struggles, TSU went undefeated in their non-conference play a year ago — with two wins coming over the SWAC.
5. Wofford at Tennessee Tech (Thursday, 6:00 PM)
The Terriers won big in Spartansburg last season, and TTU hopes to return the favor in Cookeville this year. It’s also a new beginning for TTU, as the Marcus Satterfield has taken the reigns of the program from Watson Brown. An opening week win could go a long way in helping the Golden Eagles get back above .500 for the first time since 2010.
In a lot of ways, it will be interesting to see TTU return to more ‘standard’ football. After the failed experiment that was the ‘quarterback wing’ in 2014, injuries last season forced the team’s best wide out, Brock McCoin, back under center. This year, he’ll head back out wide, as Marshall transfer Michael Birdsong takes over at quarterback.
Wofford is an experienced bunch this year — bringing back 17 starters from a year ago, including nine on the defensive end. Their triple option offense is hard for teams to prepare for, as they don’t put the ball in the air hardly ever. All-in-all, it’s a very tough matchup for the Golden Eagles to kick off the season.
6. UT Martin at Cincinnati (Thursday, 6:00 PM)
If UTM has anything other than two quarterbacks listed as “1A” and “1B” on their depth chart — I’ll be immensely surprised. The intrigue from this game will be which quarterback plays better — and who can keep the starting job going forward.
The Skyhawks defense will be especially challenged by quarterback Gunner Kiel and head coach Tommy Tuberville‘s offense. But UTM might have some opportunities to put up a few points — Cincy’s defense was among the worst in FBS last year.
7. Southeast Missouri at Memphis (Saturday, 6:00 PM)
I wasn’t really expecting a quarterback battle in Cape Girardeau this year. SEMO named JUCO transfer Jesse Hosket as the starter over returning OVC freshman of the year Donte Vandeven but it’s not out of the realm that both could see action against Memphis.
I wasn’t really expecting a quarterback battle in Cape Girardeau this year.
The Tigers are in flux — head coach Justin Fuente, who re-invigorated the program is gone, and new head coach Mike Norvell must replace their record setting quarterback, Paxton Lynch. The Tigers are still picked to finish in the top three of the American Conference by Athlon, and their rushing attack could be a lot for the Redhawks to handle.
8. Murray State at Illinois (Saturday, 2:30 PM)
The most interesting story here has nothing to do with the Racers: It’s new Illinois head coach Lovie Smith‘s first game at the helm of the Illini.
S&P projections have the Racers as 33-point underdogs — but it will be interesting to see is how the offense performs; A few reports out of Murray have indicated that the defense has been ahead of the offense in practice, something virtually unheard of in the recent era of Murray State football.
9. Austin Peay at Troy (Saturday, 5:00 PM)
According to those S&P projections I’ve mentioned a few times — the Governors are a bigger underdog against this team from the Sun Belt than any other matchup this week — which includes two opponents from the Big Ten, and one from the American. Yikes.
Troy isn’t even projected to finish as a bowl team in those same rankings.
That being said — there’s more excitement in Clarksville than I’ve seen in my time covering the conference. Will that confidence turn into an improved product on the field? A competitive half against the Trojans would go a long way in keeping spirits high.