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August 31, 2016

(STATS) - Mark Elder and his Eastern Kentucky players can't wait to face Purdue this weekend.

Making his head coaching debut Saturday against the Boilermakers, Elder expects big things right off the bat.

"We feel we have a very hungry team," said Elder, who spent the previous three seasons as special teams and tight ends coach at Tennessee.

"We're not heading to West Lafayette for a participation trophy, I can tell you that much. We're going there to compete. We're going there to win the game. I'm not the kind of guy to predict wins and upsets, those types of things. But I know our guys are certainly excited about the opportunity."

It would not be a major surprise for the Colonels to pull off the upset. EKU beat Miami, Ohio 17-10 in 2014.

Despite last season's disappointing 6-5 finish that cost longtime coach Dean Hood his job, EKU averaged 30.3 points, lost at Kentucky in overtime and comes back this year with 10 FBS players on its roster. Purdue, meanwhile, has gone 6-30 the past three seasons.

The most intriguing question surrounding Elder's debut is who will start at quarterback. There is no guarantee it's Maty Mauk, who went 17-5 as a starter in three seasons at Missouri where he was suspended three times in four months before being dismissed early in 2016.

Though Mauk has reportedly seen the error of his past ways and is poised to mature, senior Bennie Coney ranked 12th nationally with 23 passing touchdowns and threw for a career-high 2,471 yards in 2015. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Swafford is also in the mix.

"We've got three guys that we are comfortable with, three guys that have battled all through camp," Elder said. "We feel we can win many ballgames with any of those three.

"We might have more than one quarterback play (Saturday). We're not in a position to where we want to talk about that at this point."

Elder is one of three new coaches in the Ohio Valley Conference. Marcus Satterfield comes over from assisting at Temple's to replace the legendary Watson Brown at Tennessee Tech and Will Healy takes over at Austin Peay.

At age 31, Healy is the second-youngest head coach in both the FCS and FBS. He inherits a program that is 1-34 over the past three seasons and has dropped 37 straight on the road.

"The chips are stacked against us," said Healy, who spent the previous seven seasons as an assistant at FCS power Chattanooga. "Every week for us is a test. We're going to have to create some success early."

ELDER STATESMAN

While that new coaching trio prepares to get its feet wet, UT Martin's Jason Simpson begins his 11th season - by far the longest tenure among league coaches.

The first two weeks present an interesting challenge for the Skyhawks, who visit Cincinnati on Saturday then travel to Hawaii on Sept. 10.

"It's very unique," said Simpson, whose squad also plays FBS team Georgia State on Oct. 22. "We play three FBS schools. It's probably the toughest schedule in school history."

DO YOU HAVE A PEN?

Murray State coach Mitch Stewart embarks on his second season guiding the Racers, but admits he'll be in awe Saturday when he looks across the field to see Lovie Smith standing on the Illinois sideline.

Smith, the former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, looks to revive a sagging Illini program. Regardless how that turns out, he has a fan in Stewart.

"When we meet at midfield for the handshake I hope he doesn't think it's unprofessional for me to ask for his autograph," Stewart joked. "I watched him coach in Super Bowls. He's great."

ALL ALONE

Checking in at No. 3, reigning national runner-up Jacksonville State is the lone OVC team ranked in the STATS FCS Poll.

"All that matters is who is in that No. 1 spot at the end," coach John Grass said.

The Gamecocks shouldn't have much trouble handling Division II North Alabama on Thursday, but things heat up with fifth-ranked LSU and Coastal Carolina awaiting the following two weeks. After that, Jacksonville State visits Liberty before league play begins.

"We don't schedule wins around here," Grass said. "We schedule games that are going to be good for us."

MARQUEE MATCHUP

Perhaps the most intriguing opening contest among OVC teams comes Thursday when Eastern Illinois host No. 20 Western Illinois.

The Panthers also opened last season against the Leathernecks, but are aiming for a better outcome after committing five turnovers in the 33-5 defeat. EIU managed to bounce back from that loss and ultimately earned an at-large playoff berth.

All-OVC selection Devin Church returns from rushing for 743 yards while linebacker Seth McDonald leads the defense after he finished second in the league with 109 tackles.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

Southeast Missouri boasts seven players from Memphis, the city in which it opens Saturday against the Tigers at the Liberty Bowl.

Less than 200 miles from SEMO's campus in Cape Girardeau, Memphis has become a favorable recruiting ground since coach Tom Matukewicz took over in 2014. Whether those hometown products get the opportunity to play a role in this contest remains to be seen, but Matukewicz might resort to anything to help the school improve on its 1-20 record against FBS opponents.

HONORING TRADITION

Tennessee State looks to improve to 13-5 in the annual John Merritt Classic on Saturday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The game is played at the home of the Tennessee Titans and a spirited way for the Tigers to open the season.

Tennessee State started 4-1 in 2014 and 3-1 last season, but failed to make the playoffs both times.

"We've got to be able to sustain our momentum," coach Rod Reed said. "We want to start fast and finish strong."

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