Jacksonville State yet again preseason favorite to win OVC

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jacksonville State coach John Grass says his Gamecocks pay no attention to the streaks.

It's getting more difficult for everyone else to miss them.

The Gamecocks head into this season looking for a fourth consecutive Ohio Valley Conference title, one that would tie the conference record set by Eastern Kentucky in the mid-1980s.

Maybe even more impressive is Jacksonville State's 24 straight conference victories, just two shy of the OVC record set by Eastern Kentucky between 1992-95.

"We don't really talk about it," Grass said Monday during the conference's media day. "Hopefully the streak stays intact because that's what our goal is. We want to win the conference. One definite way to win your conference is to win every conference game."

The Gamecocks are favored to wind up on top of the OVC once again, receiving 16 of 18 possible first-place votes in a poll of league head coaches and sports information directors. UT Martin got the other two first-place votes as the pick to finish second, followed by Tennessee State, Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky.

Senior guard Justin Lea says that's the standard expected at Jacksonville State.

"We know that's just one step we must accomplish to get a first-round bye, a bid and a high seed in the playoffs," Lea said.

The Gamecocks roared through the OVC last year, beating seven opponents by an average of 20 points. Only one OVC team, Southeast Missouri, came within a touchdown of the Gamecocks.

Jacksonville State loses multithreat quarterback Eli Jenkins, who accounted for 3,234 yards and 24 touchdowns for last year's 10-2 squad. But the Gamecocks return nine starters from a defense that ranked fourth nationally in total defense last year. The OVC's preseason defensive player of the year is defensive end Darius Jackson, who already holds the school record for sacks (20 1/2) and tackles for loss (40).

"I know what it takes to get everybody on the defensive side of the ball pumped up," Jackson said. "They call me the 'Hype Beast,' but I like to make sure my team is having fun. If my team is having fun, I'm pretty sure we're going to be winning."

UT Martin finished second in the OVC last season, losing 33-7 to Jacksonville State in the regular-season finale. The Skyhawks haven't been picked as high as second in the preseason poll since 2009.

There's the promise of offense at UT Martin this season thanks to the return of quarterback Troy Cook, the former Florida State transfer who threw for 2,321 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. He'll be protected by a pair of preseason all-conference linemen in guard Robert Burleigh and tackle Kadarren Bond.

The Skyhawks must overcome the loss of running back Jaimiee Bowe, a preseason all-conference selection who tore an Achilles two weeks ago during a conditioning run. He will redshirt this season and have two remaining years of eligibility.

"I think we're going to have an explosive offense," Cook said. "I think we'll have a real good chance of being the best offense in the country, honestly."

No talk of OVC offense is complete without mentioning Tennessee State, which averaged a league-best 32.6 points per game last season. The Tigers will feature a new quarterback — probably Florida transfer Treon Harris. He will be eased into the job with help from senior wide receiver Patrick Smith, the OVC's preseason offensive player of the year after catching 61 passes for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016.

"He's the total package," Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said. "You get the ball in his hands and anything might happen. I think he can play at any level. He's that kind of kid."


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