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OVC still trying to leap playoff hurdle

Nashville, TN (Sports Network) - There is so much for cornerback CJ James to bask in regarding Eastern Illinois' 2009 football season.

From playing before 104,000 fans at Penn State to winning on the road at rival Jacksonville State to having two four-game winning streaks to capturing the Ohio Valley Conference championship, the Panthers have a lot to remember.

Yet, no matter what, James' mind always flashes to the way EIU was whipped at then-No. 1 Southern Illinois in the first round of the FCS playoffs. He felt the Panthers let the OVC down, and, just as importantly, let their senior class down.

"When you look at that game, it looked like we weren't supposed to be there. We didn't really show any fight from looking at the score," James still says with grimace.

Now a senior himself, James plans a different outcome for this postseason.

"No one wants to leave anything on a bad note. This being my senior year, I wouldn't want to leave on a bad note," he said.

The Big South and the Northeast Conference are embracing the fact their 2010 champions will have automatic bids for the first time, but the OVC seemingly needs a different outcome in the postseason more than anybody else. Over the last nine seasons, OVC teams are 0-12 in the playoffs, and the last one to win in the postseason - Western Kentucky in 2000 - isn't even in the conference anymore.

Three Key Games
Jacksonville State at Eastern Illinois, Sept. 24 - Ineligible for the Ohio Valley title last season, Jacksonville State's only conference loss was to Eastern Illinois. QB Marquis Ivory takes over the offense, but his first conference game will be on the road at EIU against talented CBs CJ James and Rashad Haynes. This matchup has become the best in the conference.

Eastern Illinois at Eastern Kentucky, Oct. 9 - Eastern Kentucky won at EIU last season, and QB T.J. Pryor, the 2009 OVC Freshman of the Year, gives the Colonels another shot here. Panthers coach Bob Spoo has one of his more experienced teams, with RB Mon Williams carrying the load offensively.

Tennessee State at Jacksonville State, Oct. 16 - Tennessee State pulled a season-ending upset at Eastern Illinois last season. CB Eugene Clifford and the Tigers will try to take down Jacksonville State at the renovated Paul Snow Stadium.


OVC coaches aren't shying away from the bad history. In fact, as the playoffs expand from 16 to 20 teams, and two of the four additional teams gain at-large berths, they believe their conference could start to gain multiple berths on a consistent basis again. If and when that happens, they're the first to say their teams have to raise their level of play.

If more than the OVC champion extends their season to Thanksgiving weekend and beyond, the pair could be Jacksonville State and Eastern Illinois, who were picked first and second, respectively, in the OVC's preseason poll released today at the conference football media day at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans. Eastern Kentucky, which won conference titles in 2007 and '08, isn't far behind with its talent. Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State, perhaps the dark horse team in the race, also drew first-team votes in the 18-voter poll.

"We (the OVC) haven't been good enough," Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood said matter-of-factly. "We won the conference championship in 2008 and went and played at Richmond and they were a lot better football team than us.

"What I like about our league is (when) Eastern Illinois got in (last) year, I'm cheering for Eastern Illinois, I'm cheering for (coach) Bob Spoo. And I'm sure the year before when we got in it, no matter what happens on the field in our game, I guarantee you every single coach and player was cheering for us. We have a camaraderie in this league, wanting us to win a playoff game. We haven't been good enough; that's the bottom line."

"We along with everyone else from the OVC that's been in the first round have not serviced our conference very well," said Spoo, whose program has lost nine straight first-round games since 1995. "If we had won a couple of those games and advanced, I think people would have a little more respect, so to speak, for the OVC. We need to be able to advance; we've got to have a strong showing. Maybe it would be upsetting some of these (Division) I-A teams (now FBS) that we're playing along the way to get our rankings up high initially, playing good, solid football and gaining the respect of the country a little more."

That the OVC's postseason history dates to Murray State's 21-21 tie with Sul Ross State in the 1948 Tangerine Bowl underscores the conference's snake-bitten ways. Eastern Kentucky won FCS (then known as Division I-AA) championships in 1979 and '82, but the OVC has been playing catch-up ever since.

Coaches identify the need for a greater commitment, both financially and philosophically, to improve success. The resources put into the $47 million renovation at Jacksonville State's Burgess-Snow Field, which the Gamecocks will debut on Sept. 11 against Chattanooga, is a shining example that should give JSU both a decided advantage in recruiting and help it close the gap against top programs nationally.

"The CAA (Colonial Athletic Association) has set the bar," Hood said. "It's the SEC of FCS football right now.

"We've got to get as-good players and improve our program and get better and be like the CAA. That's a strong conference right now."

It's not surprising the head coaches and sports information directors from all nine OVC schools installed Jacksonville State as the preseason favorite. The Gamecocks would have won their conference title last season had it not been ineligible because of APR (academic progress rate) sanctions, and they have a 43-13 conference record that is best since they joined the OVC for the 2003 season.

But there's hope around the conference because their Ryan Perriloux-generated offense of a year ago is breaking in a new starting quarterback, though Marques Ivory is experienced and should handle the transition. Top rushers Calvin Middleton and Jamal Young return to give the offense some juice, and senior T.J. Heath is one of the FCS' top cornerbacks. The Gamecocks led the conference in both scoring offense and defense last season.

EIU is nipping at the Gamecocks' heels, however. Not only have James and his teammates been motivated by last season's playoff demise, but they feature one of Spoo's more experienced teams. Mon Williams hopes to run wild behind a veteran offensive line, while defensively all four starting linebackers as well as James and fellow cornerback Rashad Haynes bolster the unit.

"I know Bob knows they can go play with anybody and I know we can go play with anybody," said Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe. "Obviously some people out there that are making some decisions, I don't think they get it. I think there's extremely regional biases in FCS football - extremely regional biases. And I think sometimes when things are done with organizations that really don't have insight ... Not just us, but I think this whole league, I don't think we've gotten the credit that we deserve."

Eastern Kentucky features quarterback T.J. Pryor, the 2009 OVC Freshman of the Year, who might be the best signal-caller in the OVC, although the preseason first-team distinction went to junior Matt Scheible of Southeast Missouri. Consistent play at the position will go a long way this season because the OVC doesn't bring back a lot of top QBs.

The conference is so unpredictable that the preseason favorite in six of the last seven seasons has not gone on to win the title. Adding to the wacky ways, last season's two first-team running backs, Terrence Holt and Ryan White, played for an Austin Peay squad that finished 4-7. Both are back this season.

The OVC's new coaches are Chris Hatcher at Murray State, who arrives after three years of subpar records at Georgia Southern, and Rod Reed, who was elevated from the defensive coordinator's position at Tennessee State, his alma mater.

"You talk about some quality teams in the league," Reed said. "You can't just go down and say, 'OK, we can expect to win this one, we can expect to ...' There are quality coaches in this league, like Jacksonville State, Coach Crowe. You've just got to go out and play hard week in and week out."

The season kicks off on Sept. 4 for OVC teams, and they will be hard-pressed to have a good overall record by the end of that day. Among the games, Eastern Illinois visits Iowa, Jacksonville State goes to Ole Miss, UT Martin travels to Tennessee, Tennessee Tech is at Arkansas, Murray State visits Kent State, Southeast Missouri goes to Ball State, even Eastern Kentucky faces a difficult road test within the FCS, at Missouri State.

That just might be the day the OVC is looking for. They could parlay some strong performances - maybe not wins - into a little more respect nationally. It could lead up to a deep title race and a then November to remember in the FCS playoffs.

At least that's what the OVC is pointing toward in 2010.

"I can sit here and tell you that our league is very competitive and it's better than it's ever been," Spoo said. "Do we match up across the country nationwide with other teams that are trying to get in there? That I don't know. But I sure hope that changes."

"The best thing we can do is send a couple teams to the playoffs," Crowe said, "and we've got to win some games."

OVC PRESEASON POLL
(Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)

1. Jacksonville State (11 first-place votes), 120 points;
2. Eastern Illinois (4), 114;
3. Eastern Kentucky (1), 102;
4. Tennessee Tech (1), 78;
5. Tennessee State (1), 70;
6. UT Martin, 59;
7. (tie) Austin Peay, 38;
7. (tie) Southeast Missouri, 38;
9. Murray State, 29

PRESEASON OVC ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

Offensive Player of the Year - Terrence Holt, RB/KR, Austin Peay;

Defensive Player of the Year - Josh Bey, LB, UT Martin

Offense

QB
Matt Scheible, Southeast Missouri;

RB
Ryan White, Austin Peay;
Terrence Holt, Austin Peay.

WR
Tim Benford, Tennessee Tech;
Marcus Harris, Murray State.

TE
Cory Freeman, Jacksonville State.

C
Willie Henderson, Eastern Illinois.

G
Tylor Chambers, Jacksonville State;
Slade Adams, Tennessee Tech.

T
Curt Porter, Jacksonville State;
Malcolm Jones, Tennessee Tech


Defense

DL
Andrew Soucy, Eastern Kentucky;
Perry Burge, Eastern Illinois;
J.J. Sanchez, Southeast Missouri;
Donte'e Nicholls, Tennessee State.

LB
Josh Bey, UT Martin;
Jordan Dalrymple, Eastern Kentucky;
Nick Nasti, Eastern Illinois.

DB
Eugene Clifford, Tennessee State;
T.J. Heath, Jacksonville State;
CJ James, Eastern Illinois;
Jeremy Caldwell, Eastern Kentucky

Specialists

PK
Kienan Cullen, Murray State.

P
Kienan Cullen, Murray State.

RS
Terrence Holt, Austin Peay

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director


Southwestern Athletic Conference
Media Day - July 20

Big Sky Conference
Media Day - July 20

Ohio Valley Conference
Media Day - July 26

Southern Conference
Media Day - July 27

Colonial Athletic Association
Media Day - July 28

Southland Conference
Media Day - July 28

Big South Conference
Media Day - July 29

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Media Day - July 30

Missouri Valley Conference
Media Day - August 2

Patriot League
Media Day - August 3

Northeast Conference
Media Day - August 4

Pioneer Conference
Media Day - August 9

Ivy League
Media Day - August 10

Great West Conference
Media Day - August 11



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