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OVC analysis: Who should we favor to win the league? Gotta go with Austin Peay

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Jacksonville State's Zerrick Cooper looks to rum by Austin Peay’s Pat Walker during the JSU at Austin Peay OVC football game. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

The Ohio Valley Conference is hosting football media days in three weeks — the catch is that they will be done virtually. We can do it all from our kitchen tables.

No sitting down for a hamburger with Jacksonville State's John Grass. No small talk with Tennessee-Martin's Jason Simpson while waiting for another session. No standing to the side and listening as Tennessee State's Rod Reed tells us a story.

No visiting with Kyle Schwartz and Heather Brown of the OVC's communications staff — two of the absolute best people in the business.

No getting to know some of the athletes informally before and after the interviews. (Jacksonville State and its fellow OVC schools really do have some great guys wearing their uniforms, and it's always a delight to get to know them beyond the interviews for stories.)

Still, it will be informative and helpful as we prepare for whatever the 2020 football season will bring. Fingers crossed, the COVID-19 pandemic won't force a radical change to what we typically see on the football field.

In that spirit, let's have a little fun by tackling the request that the OVC made of us who will "attend" the media days: picking the league standings.

1. Austin Peay

How long has it been since we haven't picked Jacksonville State first in the league? Probably 2013, when Eastern Illinois won the championship and JSU finished third, which was just before the Gamecocks reeled off five straight titles.

The Govs deserve to be picked first until somebody proves otherwise. They tied Southeast Missouri for the OVC championship and won a school-record 11 games for Mark Hudspeth, then in his first year as the head coach. They also advanced to the FCS quarterfinals, winning at third-seeded Sacramento State in the process.

Austin Peay lost quarterback JaVaughn Craig to graduation, but former starter Jeremiah Oatsvall is back. He got hurt two games into last season, which allowed Craig to take over.

Former Mississippi State walk-on Blake Mitchell returns on the offensive line, where he played center and guard. Receiver DeAngelo Wilson caught 89 passes, including 15 for touchdowns. Defensive back Kordell Jackson intercepted seven passes and broke up or defended 13.

Defensive lineman Josephus Smith made 18½ tackles for loss. Mitchell, Wilson, Jackson and Smith made the HERO Sports preseason All-America team.

The defense lost only four starters to graduation.

2. UT Martin

Simpson, a former assistant at Jacksonville State, has coached the Skyhawks since 2006. No other current head coach has been in the OVC as long.

His teams often seem to finish higher than they're picked, so why not slide them into the No. 2 spot? In the last eight years, UT Martin has posted a 6-2 record four times, 5-3 twice, 4-4 once and 2-6 once.

The Skyhawks lost eight starters on defense to graduation, but there's talent back on offense.

Running back Peyton Logan rushed for 806 yards while playing in only nine games. He also gained 119 receiving yards and helped return kickoffs for a 21.6-yard average.

Quarterback John Bachus started last season a redshirt freshman but finished fourth in the league in passing efficiency. Of the eight OVC quarterbacks who attempted at least 300 passes, nobody threw as few interceptions as Bachus did (nine).

On defense, rising senior safety JaQuez Atkins is the top returnee on that side of the ball. His 92 tackles last year ranked second on the team.

Simpson brought in four new coaches in the off-season, including quarterbacks coach Kyle Edwards, who played quarterback at Alabama in 2016-18, although he never played in a game.

3. Jacksonville State

Got a feeling most will say this isn't where Jacksonville State should be picked. The Gamecocks' fan base seems to be either fish or fowl — either the Gamecocks should be first or near the bottom. No in between.

It's a shame that JSU completed only two spring practices before the shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gamecocks need all the time they can get to identify a place-kicker.

It's one thing to miss your share of kicks, but it's something else when you get into field goal range and your coach would rather go for it than try for three points. JSU attempted only nine field goals last year, making four. Only one OVC school tried fewer field goals: Eastern Illinois, which had an abysmal offense last year, attempted only eight.

The defense was middle of the pack last year in the OVC after dominating through the championship years. Defensive lineman D.J. Coleman was a HERO Sports preseason All-American.

At quarterback, Zerrick Cooper returns for his senior year, and expect him to be the best version of himself that you've seen. He was second in the league last year in passing efficiency. He was criticized for turnovers, but his 12 interceptions weren't that many, considering he threw 439 passes. Still, that number should drop.

It will help to have 6-foot-7 Trae Barry back at tight end. He missed the last seven games because of injury. Up to that point, if Cooper needed to complete a critical third- or fourth-down pass, he often went to Barry, and there usually wasn't much the defense could do about it. JSU really felt his loss after that.

Cooper, offensive lineman Michael Shaddix, Barry, Coleman and linebacker Zach Woodard made the HERO Sports preseason All-OVC team.

4. Eastern Kentucky

EKU actually wasn't that far away from an OVC title last year. The Colonels lost to UT Martin by 10, to Austin Peay in overtime by seven and Southeast Missouri by seven. They closed the season with wins over Tennessee Tech and JSU.

Running back Alonzo Booth is HERO Sports preseason All-OVC. He rushed for only 673 yards last year but scored 14 touchdowns, even though he wasn't the starter.

EKU lost only three seniors from last season's first-team offense and only four from its defense. The kicker, Sam Hayworth, who kicked five field goals against JSU, is gone, too.

Quarterback Parker McKinney is back after starting as a redshirt freshman last season. He has a solid offensive line in front of him, led by Tucker Schroeder and Jackson Bardall, who were preseason All-OVC picks by HERO Sports.

5. Southeast Missouri

The Redhawks won a share of the OVC title last year with Austin Peay and nearly did so in 2018 except for a last-minute kickoff return for a touchdown by Murray State.

They won nine games total last year and lost four, including to Missouri of the Southeastern Conference, FCS semifinalist Montana State and FCS quarterfinalists Austin Peay and Illinois State.

Good news for the rest of the league: wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson was a senior last season. He burned plenty of teams, especially Jacksonville State. Against OVC teams, he averaged 115.9 receiving yards a game, which led the league by far.

Linebackers Zach Hall (122 tackles) and Justin Swift (94 tackles, including 13 behind the line) are gone, too. Even so, SEMO lost only three seniors on offense and six on defense.

6. Tennessee Tech

The Golden Eagles won only one game apiece in 2017 and ’18 before managing a 6-6 mark last season.

They didn't finish strong and should've beaten Tennessee State at home in the last game. They did beat Jacksonville State, however, and lost to SEMO by only six on the road.

Bailey Fisher threw for 2,643 yards last season and rushed for 11 touchdowns. He's back and should be just as good as last year. Metrius Fleming, a dangerous kick returner and a solid receiver, is back, too. He had 1,200 all-purpose yards, which covers rushing, receiving and returns.

7. Murray State

Murray State has a new coach in Dean Hood, who coached Eastern Kentucky in 2008-15, posting a 55-28 record and winning two OVC championships. Hood spent the last three years as an assistant coach at Kentucky.

Murray State can use the help. The Racers haven't had a winning season in OVC play since 2011 when they were 5-3.

Former coach Mitch Stewart was 19-37 in five years, including 4-8 last season.

The best returning player is linebacker Anthony Koclanakis, who led the league with 124 tackles last season.

8. Tennessee State

Tennessee State had a brutal year last season on defense, allowing 454 yards and 56 touchdowns. TSU gave Eastern Illinois its only win of the year in a 49-38 home loss.

The Tigers did manage to beat Austin Peay, somehow, 26-24 at home.

The Tigers had the best skill-position player in the league last year in Chris Rowland, who averaged 175.8 all-purpose yards a game. He was a senior last year, however.

Defensive back Nick Harper defended 16 passes and made 57 tackles, and punter Kaleb Mosley averaged 42.2 yards a kick. Both made HERO's preseason all-conference team.

9. Eastern Illinois

Adam Cushing is back for his second season as Eastern Illinois' coach. The first one didn't go well, as the Panthers finished 1-11.

They did finish first in the nation in FCS in fourth-down conversion percentage. (Hey, when you go 1-11, you trumpet anything at all that's positive.)

Cushing and his staff brought in 38 new players, including 18 from Illinois.

Of the players returning, keep an eye on Isaiah Hill. He led the team last year in receiving (569 yards), kickoff returns (244 yards) and punt returns (18 yards). He's a solid all-around threat.

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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