NASHVILLE - Coming off an OVC Championship and its first FCS Playoff victory, UT Martin has been picked as the preseason football favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference for the 2022 season. The Skyhawks picked up 10 of a possible 14 first-place votes in a poll of league head coaches and communications directors.
It marks the first time the Skyhawks have been picked the preseason favorites since joining the league prior to the 1992 season.
UT Martin totaled 70 points to finish ahead of Southeast Missouri (59). Murray State (51) was tabbed third, just ahead of Tennessee State (46), who also picked up a first-place vote. The poll was rounded out by Tennessee Tech (29), Eastern Illinois (20) and Lindenwood (19).
This season, the 75th year of the Conference, the OVC welcomes Lindenwood and has Murray State as an affiliate to comprise the seven-team league. Six of the seven teams will play five conference games that count in the league standings, with Lindenwood, who joined in February, playing four games that count in the standings (and challenging Eastern Illinois in a contest that counts as a non-conference game).
In addition to the League schedule, OVC schools will collaborate with the Southland Conference in a non-conference scheduling alliance for 2022 and 2023. Beginning in 2023, the OVC and Big South Conference begin an agreement to create an association between its football member institutions. The unique agreement combines the two conferences’ football membership to ensure NCAA championship access and stability and will provide the football member institutions a schedule of games against all the teams in their multisport conference and additional games against schools from the other conference.
The 2022 season marks the 17th for head coach Jason Simpson who moved into fourth place in OVC history with 100 career wins a season ago. He hit the century mark with a win over Missouri State in the First Round of the FCS Playoffs. Overall Simpson is one of just 16 coaches in league history to coach 10 or more seasons at the same school. Although the team has to replace OVC Offensive Player of the Year Keon Howard at quarterback, and first-team All-OVC running back Peyton Logan, the team has plenty of returning firepower. That includes another first-team running back in Zak Wallace (807 yards, 15 touchdowns) and wide receiver Colton Dowell (22 catches, 398 yards, 2 touchdowns), along with three offensive linemen - Matthan Hatchie, Gavin Olson and Lamar Morgan - who were selected to the Preseason All-OVC squad. Defensively the team returns graduate linebacker John H. Ford II (88 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble), who was named the Preseason OVC Defensive Player of the Year, and safety Deven Sims (93 tackles, 1 interception) who earned the same honor from Lindy's magazine.
In a league with five of its top seven rushing leaders returning, the back at the top of the performance list is senior Geno Hess, the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year who has been a first-team All-OVC selection each of the past two seasons. In 2020, Hess led all FCS players with 12 rushing scores, and a year ago he tallied 1,116 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Redhawks. This season is the ninth year for head coach, Tom Matukewicz has established SEMO Division I records for overall (41) and OVC wins (33) as well as wins over nationally-ranked opponents (7).
After being tabbed the preseason favorite last season, Murray State was picked third this year. Now in his third season with the Racers, head coach Dean Hood has guided the program to 11 total victories in the past two seasons. Among the team's returning players is third-year running back Damonta Witherspoon (912 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns, 18 receptions), who has earned a pair of All-OVC honors during his career, and sophomore quarterback DJ Williams (1,552 yards of total offense and nine total touchdowns) who became the team's starter halfway through last season on his way to OVC Freshman of the Year honors. On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Eric Samuta (76 tackles, 3 forced fumbles) is the team's leading returning tackler and was an All-OVC pick last season.
Tennessee State enters year two under former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George. In the first year with the Big Blue, the Tigers took care of the football, throwing only six interceptions in 11 games, which led the OVC and ranked 17th nationally. This year the team welcomes a new signal caller in Austin Peay transfer Draylen Ellis. Ellis was named OVC Co-Freshman of the Year in 2020 and last season was a second-team All-OVC pick after passing for 2,626 yards and 19 touchdowns. He will be teamed with third-year running back Devon Starling, who shared those Freshman of the Year accolades with Ellis in 2020. A year ago he was named All-OVC and earned Sophomore All-American honors after rushing for 800 yards. Defensively, the Tigers placed three players on the Preseason All-OVC team, in Tadarrius Patterson (30 tackles, 5.5 sacks), Teray Jones (15 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and James Green (77 tackles, 1 interception).
This year the Tennessee Tech football team celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first varsity contest. It marks the fifth season under head coach Dewayne Alexander who welcomes a new quarterback into his system in 2022. That signal caller is Jeremiah Oatsvall who was the 2017 OVC Freshman of the Year at Austin Peay and spent four years there before transferring to Memphis last year and not playing. The Golden Eagles also return running back David Gist who ranked fourth in the OVC in rushing last year (901 yards) while also catching 37 passes. Shoring up the other side of the ball is redshirt senior safety Josh Reliford (69 tackles, 6 pass breakups).
Eastern Illinois begins this year with a new head coach in former Panther player and assistant coach Chris Wilkerson. Wilkerson played for the Panthers from 1991-94 and coached under Hall of Famer Bob Spoo from 1995-2001. He takes over the EIU program after a successful tenure at the University of Chicago, where he posted winning seasons in seven of his eight seasons. A year ago Eastern Illinois ranked in the Top 30 nationally in both kickoff return yardage defense (15th - 16.44 yards/return) and tackles for loss per game (28th - 6.5). This year the team returns a trio of defensive players who earned All-OVC honors in 2021 in Jordan Vincent (60 tackles), Tim Varga (46 tackles, 4.0 sacks) and Jordan Miles (38 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks).
Lindenwood, who joins the OVC and begins its reclassification to Division I, is eligible to win the OVC Championship but cannot earn the league's automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs. Should the Lions claim the regular season title, the runner-up (as determined through a tiebreaker to address the unbalanced schedule), would earn the AQ. The Lions, now in year five under head coach Jed Stugart, have made the playoffs in each of its last two seasons (2019 and 2021 - the team did not compete in 2020), compiling an 18-7 overall and 14-0 Conference mark. Lindenwood begins its Division I era with an experienced quarterback in Cade Brister. Brister was a finalist for the Harlon Hill Award in 2019 when he passed for 3,779 yards. A year ago, before getting injured, he completed 70.8 percent of his passes for 1,572 yard and 10 touchdowns while rushing for 317 yards and seven additional scores.
2022 OVC Football Predicted Order of Finish
1. UT Martin (10 first-place votes) – 70 points
2. Southeast Missouri (3) - 59
3. Murray State - 51
4. Tennessee State (1) - 46
5. Tennessee Tech - 29
6. Eastern Illinois - 20
7. Lindenwood - 19
Congrove Computer Rankings
1. UT Martin
2. Southeast Missouri
3. Tennessee State
Complete OVC Computer Rankings