If there’s a dark horse in the new Big South-OVC Football Association this season, it has a lot of hard work before coming to fruition.

Sure, all 10 programs in the first-year FCS partnership should have a feeling of refreshment, but the title race feels a bit top-heavy heading into the 2023 season.

Southeast Missouri, the preseason favorite, and Big South champ Gardner-Webb are in the preseason Top 25 rankings and appear to be peaking as FCS programs, and UT Martin, which tied SEMO for the OVC title last season, were perfect in-conference last season. The other seven teams finished below .500 during the conference schedule.

Regardless of any definitive top tier, the new matchups and potential rivalries developing during each team’s six-game conference schedule should make for an interesting first season.

Here’s a preview of the upcoming Big South-OVC season:

Predicted Order of Finish

*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)

1. *Southeast Missouri (9-3, 5-0 OVC; preseason No. 12 ranking) – SEMO has posted nine wins and secured an FCS playoff appearance in three of the last four full FCS seasons, but this year’s roster appears to be the most-talented under 10th-year coach Tom Matukewicz. Geno Hess (4,112 rushing yards, 55 touchdowns in his career), center Zack Gieg and safety Lawrence Johnson are All-Americans using an extra season of eligibility; quarterback Paxton DeLaurent has a big-play target in wide receiver Ryan Flournoy; and inside linebacker Bryce Norman is coming off a 119-tackle season. While Gieg was the 2022 FCS Rimington Award winner as the FCS’ outstanding center, the offensive line has three new starters.

(12 from Big South-OVC earn spots on Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)

2. Gardner-Webb (7-6, 5-0 Big South; preseason No. 25 ranking) – Under coach Tre Lamb, the Runnin’ Bulldogs secured their first conference title since 2003 and a first-ever playoff appearance, winning 52-41 at Eastern Kentucky in the first round. The big question is whether they will effectively replace the production of graduated QB Bailey Fisher (perhaps with Jacksonville State transfer Matthew Caldwell). They’ll get plenty of touches to running backs Narii Gaither (2,573 career rushing yards) and Jayden Brown. The defense has a standout in each unit with defensive end Ty French (sixth in the 2022 Buck Buchanan Award voting), linebacker William McRainey (two straight 100+ tackle seasons) and cornerback Raequan Ousley.

3. UT Martin (7-4, 5-0 OVC) – After sharing the OVC title with Southeast Missouri, the Skyhawks lost a coin flip to determine the automatic playoff spot, then were not awarded an at-large bid. They’re replacing a lot of key players, although defensive end Daylan Dotson (14.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks) is a nightmarish matchup for opponents and big-play running back Sam Franklin the 2022 OVC freshman of the year. Transfer QB Matt Myers made seven career starts at Buffalo.

4. Bryant (4-7, 2-3 Big South) – Bryant will only play the inaugural season of the Big South-OVC as it will move into CAA Football next year. With home games against SEMO and Gardner-Webb in November, the Bulldogs seek to be in contention for their first-ever FCS conference title and playoff bid. Quarterback Zevi Eckhaus’ consistent excellence will continue with the return of his top receivers, led by Landon Ruggieri (65 receptions, 986 yards, five TDs). The special teams with place-kicker Ethan Gettman and Anthony Frederick are aptly named.

5. Tennessee State (4-7, 2-3 OVC) – With the Tigers having suffered five straight losing seasons, improvement is needed in Year 3 of the Eddie George coaching era. The defense is a strength with defensive end Terrell Allen, linebacker James Green back from injury and a solid secondary. The Tigers averaged just 18.3 points per game, but second-year QB Draylen Ellis is more-acclimated to the offensive system.

6. Eastern Illinois (2-9, 1-5 OVC) – The Panthers lost by seven points at Northern Illinois and had three conference games by three points each, so last year’s record could have been oh-so-better. Their 10 selections on the Big South-OVC preseason team tied for the second-most. The top returnee is linebacker Elijaw Tolbert (70 tackles, three interceptions), while Monmouth transfer running back Juwon Farri (2,843 career rushing yards) was the Big South’s 2021 offensive player of the year.

7. Lindenwood (7-3, 2-3 OVC) – While the Lions’ Division I debut last season was successful, three of their wins came against sub-FCS opponents. There’s only one in a stronger schedule this season, but the Lions also avoid Gardner-Webb and UT Martin in-conference. While it will be difficult to replace longtime QB Cade Brister, the new starter will have an excellent offensive line with returnees Ethan Johnson, Kobe McClendon and Gareth Warren.

8. Tennessee Tech (4-7, 2-3 OVC) – A strong finish last year – three wins and two losses by a combined five points – have motivated the Golden Eagles throughout the offseason. While they’ve basically starting over in the offensive backfield, they are solid in the trenches, including O-linemen Nate Hodnett and Trevor Stephens and D-linemen Kail Dava and Hudson Tucker. The Golden Eagles are the only team that has to face all of the expected top trio of SEMO, Gardner-Webb and UT Martin.

9. Charleston Southern (2-8, 2-3 Big South) – New coach Gabe Giardina went 37-17 in five-plus seasons at Albany State. If there was a good sign last season, the Buccaneers were usually competitive against FCS opponents. They will have a lot of new players in key roles, although running back JD Moore (527 yards, six TDs) is a key veteran and sophomore defensive back Jamel Johnson (four interceptions) a building block.

10. Robert Morris (0-11, 0-5 Big South) – The Colonials are just 4-20 since moving out of the Northeast Conference. They were outscored 377-109 while going winless a year ago. The team’s strength is at linebacker with last year’s leading tacklers, Joe Casale and Tony Brown, Bragley Magee and a healthier Jamar Shegog (121 career stops). The road schedule (Air Force, Youngstown State, Gardner-Webb, Bryant and SEMO) is daunting.

(A look back to the first Big South-OVC football media day)

How the Conference Predicted the Race

Five Players to Watch

Zevi Eckhaus, QB, Bryant (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Fourth in the FCS in passing yards per game (293.5) as a sophomore, Eckhaus has two-season totals of 5,620 yards and 47 TD passes.

Geno Hess, RB, Southeast Missouri (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Utilizing an extra season of eligibility, Hess is ranked first among active FCS players in carries (689), rushing yards (4,112), scrimmage yards (4,293), rushing TDs (53) and overall TDs (55).

Narii Gaither, RB, Gardner-Webb (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The three-time first-team All-Big South selection is an all-purpose standout, with 80 career receptions adding to 2,573 rushing yards.

Daylan Dotson, DE, UT Martin (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – In a breakout season, Dotson (14.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, two recoveries) helped UT Martin tie for second in the FCS with 28 turnovers gained.

Ty French, DE, Gardner-Webb (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – The 2022 Big South defensive player of the year is one sack shy of the conference’s all-time record of 25.

Five Must-See Matchups

1. Southeast Missouri at UT Martin (Nov. 11) – This showdown gains from last season, when they did not meet in the regular season before tying for the OVC title. SEMO gained the automatic playoff bid via a coin flip.

2. UT Martin at Gardner-Webb (Oct. 28)

3. Gardner-Webb at Bryant (Nov. 4)

4. Gardner-Webb at Tennessee State (Sept. 16)

5. Southeast Missouri at Bryant (Nov. 18)

FBS Matchups

Of particular note on Sept. 2, UT Martin will face two-time reigning FBS champion Georgia and Tennessee State will become Notre Dame’s first-ever FCS and HBCU opponent.

This season’s 10 Big South-OVC matchups against FBS programs:

Bryant: UNLV (Sept. 2); Charleston Southern: Clemson (Sept. 9); Eastern Illinois: Bowling Green (Sept. 9); Gardner-Webb: Appalachian State (Sept. 2) and East Carolina (Sept. 23); Robert Morris: Air Force (Sept. 2); Southeast Missouri: Kansas State (Sept. 2); Tennessee State: Notre Dame (Sept. 2); Tennessee Tech: New Mexico (Sept. 9); UT Martin: Georgia (Sept. 2)


Fast Fact

Seven states are represented in the 10-member association, including a different one with each of the four Big South schools: Illinois (EIU), Missouri (Lindenwood and SEMO), North Carolina (Gardner-Webb), Pennsylvania (RMU), Rhode Island (Bryant), South Carolina (Charleston Southern) and Tennessee (TSU, TTU and UTM).

While Bryant will depart the Big South-OVC after this season, Western Illinois will become a member prior to the 2024 campaign.

Top photo of Southeast Missouri’s Geno Hess/Gardner-Webb’s Ty French courtesy Big South-OVC Football Association.