NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Jacksonville State may be the happiest that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo now is in the NFL. The Gamecocks, who lost the outright league title to Garoppolo and Eastern Illinois last year, are this preseason's favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Gamecocks, with their third head coach in as many seasons, received 118 points and 10 first-place ballots in voting by coaches and sports information directors Monday at OVC media day. Two-time defending champion Eastern Illinois (110 points) and Tennessee State (107) each picked up four first-place votes.
Those three teams reached the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2013 — most ever for the OVC — and won four games. Jacksonville State and Eastern Illinois reached the quarterfinals.
"I think it's at an all-time high as far as national perception of the OVC with what we did in the playoffs," new Gamecocks coach John Grass said.
Eastern Kentucky (82) is predicted to finish fourth, ahead of Tennessee-Martin, Murray State, Tennessee Tech, Southeast Missouri and Austin Peay.
Garoppolo was drafted in the second round by the New England Patriots, while Eastern Illinois receiver Erik Lora is a free agent with Minnesota from a team that went 12-2 and beat Jacksonville State 52-14. Garoppolo joined Tony Romo as Panthers quarterbacks to win the Walter Payton Award as the nation's top FCS player.
"He's one of the best players I've ever played against," Grass said. "I think he's going to have a tremendous pro career. I kept telling everybody how good he was."
Grass, a long-time high school coach, was promoted at Jacksonville State after one year as offensive coordinator at his alma mater. His innovative up-tempo yet smash-mouth offense has nine starters returning from a unit that set 49 school records.
Jacksonville State placed eight players on the preseason All-OVC team, with five on offense led by preseason Offensive Player of the Year DeMarcus James. James rushed for a school-record 1,477 yards and OVC-record 29 touchdowns as the Gamecocks went 11-4.
Returning quarterback Eli Jenkins, a dual threat, has fellow sophomore Josh Barge back as his main target.
"Being able to play physical and fast at the same time is a really big change-up for your normal teams," offensive lineman Max Holcombe said. "Usually they either play fast and they're not physical, or they're physical like Alabama and play slow and methodical and ram it down your throats."
Eastern Illinois also has a new coach in Kim Dameron. He has eight preseason all-league picks, including junior running back and return specialist Shepard Little who rushed for 1,551 yards. Senior Andrew Manley and Kentucky transfer Jalen Whitlow lead the battle to replace Garoppolo.
"It's going to be a great competition to see who ends up being 'the guy' if that does occur, but if it doesn't occur then we'll have a couple guys," Dameron said. "I really like the fact that I have at least two that have started a I-A college football game."
Tennessee State has six preseason All-OVC selections on defense led by end Anthony Bass tabbed as the preseason Defensive Player of the Year honors after 10 sacks last season. Daniel Fitzpatrick, whose eight interceptions led all of Division I, helps anchors the unit ranked in the top 10 nationally.
"You've got some great offensive schemes in this league," Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said. "Week in and week out, you've got to be on top of your game."
Eastern Kentucky is coming off a 6-6 season but has OVC Freshman of the Year Devin Borders back, a receiver who blocked a nation-high five kicks. Kentucky transfer Dy'Shawn Mobley joins J.J. Jude in the backfield.
"This league has gravitated toward a throwing league, so we got faster on defense," Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood said.
Southeast Missouri also has a new coach, with Tom Matukewicz moving from Toledo.