(STATS) - In the heart of the summer heat, teams in the Ohio Valley Conference are seeing something they believe to be real.
Or is it a mirage?
With Jacksonville State needing to replace quarterback Eli Jenkins, its 3 1/2-year starter and the OVC offensive player of the year last year, the feeling across the conference is the Gamecocks are more vulnerable. Of course, they've yet to lose an OVC game under fourth-year coach John Grass and have won 24 straight conference matchups since 2013, so it wasn't surprising Monday when the Gamecocks earned all possible first-place votes in the preseason poll at OVC media day in Nashville - 16 of 18 because coaches and sports information directors weren't allowed to vote for their own school.
UT Martin, last year's runner-up, and Tennessee State were second and third, respectively.
While coaches and players are sensing the pack could tighten, Eastern Illinois coach Kim Dameron still reminds, "Until somebody beats Jacksonville State, it's not a race. When we go to work every day (and) when you wake up, that's the rabbit that you're chasing,"
"They set the benchmark," Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said. "They're three-time conference champions. We have to try to recruit to the players that they have. That's what you do in college football when a team sets a standard."
Grass' Gamecocks had the most selections on the OVC preseason team with nine. It included senior defensive end Darius Jackson, last year's conference defensive player of the year, who received the preseason honor as well.
But the loss of Jenkins is significant as he made the blistering offense go and brought confidence to the unit. The Gamecocks have been prepping Bryant Horn, last year's backup quarterback, whose former role as a gunner on kickoffs indicates his toughness. Kendrick Doss also is competing for the top job.
"It's the next man up. We've got guys behind the scenes who have been putting in the work just like those other guys," All-OVC offensive tackle Justin Lea said. "I think it's going to be a different attack offensively, we're going to have to work a lot more as a unit instead of individual guys."
"It's fun being the bull's-eye, knowing that you're going to get everybody's best bet every time," Jackson said, "knowing that when the fight starts they're trying to knock you out in the first round. It's a great feeling."
Including Jacksonville State, more OVC teams are replacing their quarterbacks than not. Transfers hope to impact the race with Treon Harris (Florida) at Tennessee State, Tim Boyle (UConn) at Eastern Kentucky, Hayden Rettig (Rutgers) at Tennessee Tech and Shuler Bentley (Old Dominion) at Murray State.
Only UT Martin with All-OVC preseason quarterback Troy Cook, Eastern Illinois with Mitch Kimble and Southeast Missouri Valley with Jesse Hosket bring back their full-time starter. Austin Peay's JaVaughn Craig took over the No. 1 role late last season and hopes to lift the Governors' struggling program.
UT Martin had six preseason picks and Tennessee State was third with five, including OVC preseason offensive player of the year Patrick Smith, the Tigers' big-play senior wide receiver.
With preseason camps close to opening, OVC teams feel the race can tighten.
"I think it's in the back of everybody's mind," Murray State coach Mitch Stewart said.
KEY OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE GAMES=
Jacksonville State at UT Martin (Nov. 11) - Jacksonville State hopes to have its OVC winning streak at 30 games when it invades Graham Stadium.
Five More: UT Martin at Tennessee State (Sept. 23); Eastern Kentucky at Jacksonville State (Oct. 14); Jacksonville State at Eastern Illinois (Oct. 21); Tennessee State at Tennessee Tech (Oct. 28); Tennessee State at Jacksonville State (Nov. 16)
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL=
Voted on by Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors
1. Jacksonville State (16 first-place votes), 128
2. UT Martin (2), 107
3. Tennessee State, 96
4. Eastern Illinois, 81
5. Eastern Kentucky, 68
6. Tennessee Tech, 61
7. Southeast Missouri, 42
8. Murray State, 41
9. Austin Peay, 21
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Patrick Smith, WR, Tennessee State
Defensive Player of the Year - Darius Jackson, DE, Jacksonville State
QB - Troy Cook, UT Martin, Sr.
RB - Roc Thomas, Jacksonville State, Sr.
RB - Jaimiee Bowe, UT Martin, Jr.
RB - Yeedee Thaenrat, Tennessee Tech, So.
WR - Patrick Smith, Tennessee State, Sr.
WR - Jordon Gandy, Murray State, Sr.
TE - Addison Bounds, Eastern Illinois, Sr.
C - Thomas Burton, Tennessee State, Jr.
OG - Justin Lea, Jacksonville State, Sr.
OG - Robert Burleigh, UT Martin, Sr.
OT - Dylan Cline, Jacksonville State, Jr.
OT - Kadarren Bond, UT Martin, Sr.
DL - Darius Jackson, Jacksonville State, Sr.
DL - Ebenezer Ogundeko, Tennessee State, Sr.
DL - Aaron Patrick, Eastern Kentucky, Jr.
DL - Randy Robinson, Jacksonville State, Jr.
LB - Siran Neal, Jacksonville State, Sr.
LB - Joel McCandless, Jacksonville State, Sr.
LB - Chad Meredith, Southeast Missouri, Sr.
DB - Marlon Bridges, Jacksonville State, So.
DB - Kahlid Hagens, UT Martin, Sr.
DB - Reggie Hall, Jacksonville State, Sr.
DB - D'Montre Wade, Murray State, Sr.
DB - Tae Martin, UT Martin, Sr.
PK - Lane Clark, Tennessee State, Sr.
P - Keith Wrzuszczak, Eastern Kentucky, Sr.
RS - Cameron Sanders, Southeast Missouri, Jr.
RS - Chris Rowland, Tennessee State, So.