November 12, 2015

(STATS) - Jason Simpson has no problem talking up the top tier of teams in the Ohio Valley Conference as some of the most competitive in the FCS. It just so happens his UT Martin Skyhawks are part of that group and looking to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

Though the conference won't know until Nov. 22 how many of its schools will be rewarded with a playoff berth, Simpson's already lobbying with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

"This league, this year, is good enough to have two teams in," said Simpson, whose Skyhawks are 6-3 overall and tied for second in the league with Eastern Illinois at 5-1. "Politically, I don't know if maybe three teams are good enough to get in. From a playoff standpoint, you've got to win to get in. At least that's what the math says."

Other OVC coaches are high on the league, especially with Jacksonville State (8-1, 6-0) ranked No. 1 in the STATS FCS Top 25. At least two OVC teams have made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, and three made up the field in 2013.

Ten conference champions receive automatic playoff berths. The championship committee, chaired by Tennessee Tech athletic director Mark Wilson, uses nonconference records, strength of those nonconference opponents, recent playoff history and how teams stack up against FBS foes to fill out the rest of the 24-team field.

Here's a look at four teams in the OVC with a case to make the playoffs:



A victory Saturday at home over Southeast Missouri State will give the Gamecocks a share of their second straight league title, but they want more. Winners of 19 straight regular-season games against FCS opponents and 15 in a row in the OVC, Jacksonville State has its sights set on a deep postseason run.

"We are blessed to be where we are and we are a step closer to where we want to be," said coach John Grass, whose team lost to then-No. 6 Auburn in overtime in September.

Some other OVC coaches believe JSU's success can be beneficial to their teams.

"We got pummeled by Jacksonville, but I think Jacksonville gives the whole league credibility," Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood said. "I think that will help us in getting three teams in."

Quarterback Eli Jenkins is 24-0 as a starter against FCS teams during the regular season.



The Colonels (5-4, 4-2) are fourth in the league and have dropped their last two against JSU and UT Martin, but at No. 24 in the STATS Poll they are the only other OVC team that's ranked. EKU's other losses came against FBS teams North Carolina State and in overtime at Kentucky.

That solid nonconference slate could help the Colonels' cause, but Hood knows they can't afford to slip against Murray State and Eastern Illinois.

"We have no shot in Hades if we don't win these last two games," Hood said. "I think we've got a good chance."

EKU boasts one of the nation's top defensive players in Ohio State transfer Noah Spence, who leads the FCS with an average of 2.1 tackles for loss.



Simpson's Skyhawks might be the most underrated team in the conference and maybe even the FCS. Since losing 48-41 to Jacksonville State on Sept. 26, UT Martin has won five of six with the loss coming out of the subdivision at Arkansas. However, the Skyhawks haven't been able to crack the STATS Poll, but were third among the others receiving votes this week.

The Skyhawks made a big statement last week when they overcame a 28-17 deficit after three quarters to win 42-35 at Eastern Kentucky. The loser of their matchup with Eastern Illinois (5-4, 5-1) on Saturday will likely see their playoff hopes end.

"We're still fighting and keeping our season alive," said Simpson, whose team has won 10 of its last 11 OVC contests.

With three touchdown passes against EKU, Jarod Neal is second on UT Martin's all-time list with 49.



The Panthers reached the postseason two straight years before missing out last season. They had won five in a row before falling 24-3 to JSU last Saturday.

Though EIU went 0-3 in nonconference play, it faced strong competition in Western Illinois, Northwestern and reigning FCS runner-up Illinois State. However, the Panthers face serious challenges against UT Martin and Eastern Kentucky to conclude the regular season. A loss to either and EIU's playoff hopes are likely shot.

"We have to be at our very best," coach Kim Dameron said.

Junior linebacker Seth McDonald ranks second in the league with 10.1 tackles per game.

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