For the sixth-straight year and eighth time in the past 10 years, Jacksonville State has been picked the preseason football favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference for 2019. The Gamecocks, who have won five-straight OVC Championships and 39 of its last 40 OVC games, received 14 of a possible 18 first-place votes in a poll of league head coaches and communications directors.
The Gamecocks totaled 126 total points to out-distance Southeast Missouri, who ended the Gamecocks 36-game OVC win streak a season ago and earned an at-large berth into the FCS playoffs, who picked up the other four first-place votes and was tabbed second (115 points). Eastern Kentucky was picked third (98) and followed by Austin Peay (70), Murray State and Tennessee State (61), UT Martin (60), Eastern Illinois (35) and Tennessee Tech (22).
Despite suffering its first Conference loss since the 2013 season last season, Jacksonville State finished the year 7-1 in OVC play to win its record fifth-straight OVC Championship. The Gamecocks would go on to top East Tennessee State in the first round of the FCS Playoffs before falling to Maine in the second round. JSU finished the year ranked No. 10 in the STATS Top 25 poll and the team has now been ranked in the Top 10 in 70 of the past 73 polls. After ranking fifth nationally in total offense (497.3 yards/game) and seventh in scoring offense (40.0 points/game) last year, the team should be strong once again as they return junior quarterback Zerrick Cooper, the OVC Preseason Player of the Year, and senior wide receiver Josh Pearson, who earned multiple All-American honors a year ago. Cooper passed for 32 touchdowns last season, the third-most in OVC single-season history, and accounted for 3,787 yards of total offense, the sixth-most in league history. Pearson caught 17 of those touchdown passes, which was the most of any Division I player in 2018 and the second-most in OVC history. Pearson finished the year with 67 catches for 1,123 yards. That offense will be bolstered by two Preseason All-OVC selections from the offensive line in senior guard Darius Anderson and senior tackle Hunter Sosebee. A year ago the Gamecocks led the OVC and ranked 15th nationally in total defense (311.3 yards/game). This year's edition of the Gamecocks will be led by senior defensive back Marlon Bridges who is a three-time All-OVC first-team selection. A year ago Bridges had 69 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
A year ago Southeast Missouri was picked seventh in the league's preseason poll but the team finished second after compiling a 6-2 league mark and a 9-4 overall record. The Redhawks earned an at-large bid to the FCS Playoffs, marking just the second playoff appearance in program history (2010). The team would go on to knock off Stony Brook in the first round of the playoffs to score its first-ever playoff victory. A year ago the Redhawks ranked first nationally in turnovers gained (36), turnover margin (+1.85/game) and interceptions (23) and ranked third in defensive touchdowns (5). This season they return senior linebacker Zach Hall, who won the Buck Buchanan Award and the FCS ADA National Defensive Player of the Year Award. Hall finished the 2018 season with 168 tackles, the most of any FCS player and a new Southeast Missouri single-season record. He also added 12.0 tackles-for-loss, 4.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups, six quarterback hurries, a blocked kick and a safety. Hall was also 13th nationally in forced fumbles (0.31/game) and 50th in interceptions/game (0.3/game). He is teamed with senior Justin Swift at the linebacker position. Swift, also a Preseason All-OVC pick, had 114 tackles, 15.0 tackles-for-loss, 8.5 sacks, four interceptions, six pass breakups, nine quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries a year ago. Also returning on the defensive side of the ball is junior defensive back Bydarrius Knighten who earned first-team All-OVC honors after netting 88 tackles and nine pass breakups. Although last year's OVC Offensive Player of the Year, running back Marquis Terry, has graduated, Southeast Missouri returns senior quarterback Daniel Santacaterina who earned first-team All-OVC honors last season. Santacaterina passed for 2,844 yards and 28 touchdowns while rushing for 178 yards and three additional scores. Fourteen of Santacaterina's touchdown passes went to now senior Kristian Wilkerson who was named to the Preseason All-OVC team.
Eastern Kentucky has improved each year under now fourth-year head coach Mark Elder, going from 3-8 (2-6 OVC) in his first season to 7-4 (5-2 OVC) a season ago. This season the Colonels return eight starters on each side of the ball as well as all of its specialists. On the offensive side of the ball the team will look to senior running back Daryl McCleskey Jr. who was named to the Preseason All-OVC team. A year ago he ranked fifth in the OVC in rushing yards (59.2/game), tallying 651 yards on 144 carries while scoring five rushing and two receiving touchdowns. EKU welcomes Oregon State quarterback transfer Connor Blount who played in nine games with the Beavers, completing 62 percent (95-of-153) passes for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns. Blount will compete with redshirt freshman Parker McKinney who passed for 608 yards and four touchdowns in three games late in the 2018 season (all of which EKU won). Defensively the focus is on senior linebacker Aaron Patrick, who bounced back after missing most of the 2017 season with an injury to account for 53 tackles, 12.0 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries a year ago. Patrick has been named to several Preseason All-American Teams. He is joined on the Preseason All-OVC Team by senior defensive back Leodis Moore III who had 48 tackles and five interceptions last year.
Austin Peay begins its first season under head coach Mark Hudspeth who was the head coach at the University of Louisiana for seven years and most recently the Associate Head Coach at Mississippi State. A year ago the Governors led the OVC and ranked 16th nationally in rushing (237.5 yards/game) while setting program records for most points (340), touchdowns scored (47), points per game (30.9), yards per game (419.0), yards per play (6.19) and yards per rush (5.39). The Govs return senior running back Kentel Williams who led the FCS with a 7.99 yards/carry average a season ago and earned All-American honors as an all-purpose player from the Associated Press. He rushed for a team-high 831 yards (second in the OVC) while finishing with 1,510 all-purpose yards. Also returning is junior quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall, the 2017 OVC Freshman of the Year. As a sophomore a year ago he set program records with 26 touchdowns responsible for (20 passing, six rushing), a 142.8 passing efficiency and 7.51 yards of total offense per play set while finishing first in the OVC and 4th nationally averaging 15.68 yards/completion.
Murray State finished last year 5-3 in OVC play, its first winning Conference record since 2011 and only its third winning OVC mark since 2000. Included in those wins was a 40-38 victory over No. 19 Southeast Missouri on November 10 in which Malik Honeycutt returned a kickoff 79 yards for a touchdown with just three seconds remaining to give the Racers the dramatic win. Honeycutt, who was the team's top wide receiver with 29 catches for 477 yards and four touchdowns, found a niche on special teams late in the season, also returning a punt for a touchdown. He averaged 35.2 yards/return on five kickoff returns and 27.0 yards/return on three punt returns during the year and earned All-American honors as a return specialist. Honeycutt is one of three MSU specialists on the Preseason All-OVC Team, as he is joined by senior kicker Gabriel Vicente and senior punter Steve Dawson. Vicente has connected on 29 field goals in two years with the Racers including a pair over 50 yards. Dawson led the OVC and ranked 19th nationally in punting (42.1 yards/punt) a season ago.
Tennessee State had two games cancelled due to weather a year ago and lost several key players to injury along the way, finishing 4-5 overall. This season head coach Rod Reed returns 51 letterwinners including eight offensive and seven defensive starters. Among the offensive returners is senior wide receiver and return specialist Chris Rowland, who was named an All-American by HERO Sports a season ago. Rowland ranked 11th nationally in receptions/game (7.1) and 20th in receiving yards/game (90.9), finishing the year with 57 catches for 727 yards and five touchdowns. He also ranked sixth nationally in punt returns, averaging 13.0 yards on 14 returns. TSU also had a pair of offensive linemen named to the Preseason All-OVC team in senior center Thomas Burton and senior guard Raekwon Allen. Defensively senior Dajour Nesbeth was named a Preseason All-OVC pick after earning first-team All-OVC honors in 2018 when he had a team-high 58 tackles and four interceptions.
The injury bug bit UT Martin a season ago as the Skyhawks suffered its first non-winning season since 2011 and first below .500 record in OVC play since 2004. This year head coach Jason Simpson, the dean of OVC coaches as he begins year No. 14, returns 63 players including seven offensive and six defensive starters. One of the team's strengths should be its defensive front, as UTM has a pair of Preseason All-OVC picks on the defensive line in seniors Julian Crutchfield and Austin Pickett. Crutchfield had 41 tackles (9.0 for loss) and a pair of sacks last season while Pickett added 36 stops (5.5 for loss) and 2.0 sacks. Offensively the team returns its top two wideouts in seniors Terry Williams (67 catches, 736 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Jaylon Moore (52 catches, 799 yards, 8 touchdowns). The team also returns four of its five starters on the offensive line, including Preseason All-OVC pick Terry Fultz.
Adam Cushing begins his tenure as Eastern Illinois head coach in 2019, marking just the fourth coach for the program since 1987. Cushing spent the previous 15 years on the staff at Northwestern, coaching the offensive line since 2009 and helping the team to a victory in the Holiday Bowl in 2018. The Panthers return just three offensive starters, but that includes the quarterback/tight end combo of Johnathan Brantley and James Sheehan. Brantley set the OVC record for consecutive passes without an interception (230) a year ago and finished the season with 2,016 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. Sheehan was a second-team All-OVC selection after catching 50 passes for 544 yards and three scores. EIU has more experience returning on the defensive side of the ball (seven starters) including senior Terrell Greer, a Preseason All-OVC pick on the defensive line. Greer had 48 tackles a year ago.
Tennessee Tech enters its second year under head coach Dewayne Alexander, who returned to his alma mater to help rebuild the Golden Eagles program. TTU suffered growing pains a season ago but broke through with a win over Murray State near the end of last season to give the team momentum heading into 2019. The Golden Eagles ranked fourth nationally in fewest yards penalized/game (36.09) and 10th in the FCS in fewest penalties/game (4.73) a season ago. The team turned its starting quarterback job over to true freshman Bailey Fisher last season and in 10 games he passed for 1,681 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 346 yards (second on the team) and two additional scores in being named OVC Freshman of the Year. Also returning is senior running back Andrew Goldsmith, who led the team with 484 rushing yards and ranked second on the squad with 22 receptions a year ago. Defensively senior Shannon Fayne looks to bolster the defense after he tallied 89 tackles and two fumble recoveries last year.
2019 OVC Football Preseason Poll
1. Jacksonville State (14 first-place votes) – 126 points
2. Southeast Missouri (4 first-place votes) - 115
3. Eastern Kentucky - 98
4. Austin Peay - 70
5. Murray State - 61
Tennessee State - 61
7. UT Martin - 60
8. Eastern Illinois - 35
9. Tennessee Tech - 22