To give an idea of how unpredictable things are with the Austin Peay football program, consider that Scotty Walden has been the head football coach for two seasons already, and he recently held his first spring practices with the Governors.
After arriving in in November 2020, Walden had just under four months to prepare his team for the spring 2021 football season, which had been moved from the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The team then turned around and played a traditional fall 2021 season.
So yes, Austin Peay is the Crimson Tide's sacrificial lamb on the 2022 schedule, as the Football Championship Subdivision team will receive $600,000 to make the trip to Tuscaloosa the week before Alabama hosts Auburn for the Iron Bowl on Thanksgiving weekend.
But that's one of the few certainties about this year's Governors, who are led by the former offensive coordinator (and head coach for four games) at Southern Miss. At East Texas Baptist in 2016, when Walden was the youngest football head coach at any NCAA school at the age of 26, it led Division III in scoring offense (49.9 points per game) and finished second in total offense (564.3 yards).
Walden's now the "ripe old" age of 32 (yes, that's sarcasm), and will turn 33 four days before facing Alabama on Nov. 19. Happy birthday.
Meanwhile, the Governors will play in a new conference this season.
Last September, the ASUN Conference announced that Austin Peay would join the league for the 2022-23 academic year, expanding the league to 13 schools in seven states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia).
However, this will be the first time that the Governors will face the Crimson Tide in football.
Last year it visited Ole Miss and lost 54-17, contributing to a 2-4 start before winning four of its last five games. Most of the key players from that team are no longer on the roster, though.
Walden's teams are known for their passing, however his best playmaker has to be replaced. Starting quarterback Draylen Ellis was suspended indefinitely in January for violating team rules along defensive tackle Terrell Allen, and both have since transferred elsewhere.
The 6-foot, 175-pound Ellis threw for 2,626 yards, with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. He led the OVC in total offense (299 yards per game), total passing yards, and passing yards per game.
Two of his favorite targets, wide receivers Baniko Harley and Eugene Minter, have also moved on, along with tackle Bucky Williams from the offense that was No. 18 at the FCS level. Even leading rusher Ahmaad Tanner is gone.
Austin Peay had six quarterbacks on the roster during the spring, including Sheldon Layman, who made two starts last fall, and local standout Bryce Robinson, who is a redshirt junior.
Regardless of who's taking snaps, the Governors will try to throw — a lot.
Austin Peay has a similar problem on the other side of the ball following numerous departures.
Among them, safety Koby Perry was the first Austin Peay player to be named the OVC Defensive Player of the Year in 43 seasons. He led the team in tackles with 85.
Also gone from the secondary are two All-OVC selections, cornerback Johnathon Edwards, who made seven picks in 2021, and nickel defensive back Kordell Jackson. Both, like Perry, were graduate students.
Looking to step up in the secondary will be junior Shamari Simmons, and sophomore Kory Chapman, a junior from Hoover High School in Alabama.
Linebacker Jack McDonald and Allen, who had a team-high five sacks, were second-team OVC picks. McDonald was a graduate student, along with linebacker Troy Henderson, and they tied for second in team tackles with 71.
That's a lot of holes to fill.
The season opener against Western Kentucky will give Alabama fans a taste for the talent contrast.
The Governors open their home schedule against Presbyterian, Sept. 3, and begin the first-ever ASUN Conference football season when they welcome Eastern Kentucky, Sept. 24, to Fortera Stadium.
The game in Tuscaloosa will close Austin Peay's regular season, and chances are it will already know its fate regarding the FCS playoffs. Consequently, either the Governors will be using the finale as a sort of an enjoyable cap to the season, or they'll be fine-tuning things for the postseason.
Odds are it'll be the former as Austin Peay isn't projected to be an FCS Top 25 team.
The size differential aside (there are five 300-pound players on the entire roster), Austin Peay has a ton of question marks coming into the fall and looks like it could be a middle-of-the-pack team in the new ASUN. Although it held its spring game at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and gave free admission to anyone on the Fort Campbell Army base, it's been a pretty rocky offseason for a program that was already in need of some stability. As a result, some growing pains are expected, and the look of the team could be very different by the time the Governors get to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Austin Peay at Alabama
Date: Nov. 19
Time: 11 a.m.
TV: ESPN+/SEC Network+
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Series: First meeting
The Coach: Scott Walden, third season 10-7 (18-13 overall as a head coach)
Offensive Coordinator: Ryan Stanchek
Defensive Coordinator: Chris Kappas/Akeem Davis
2021 Record: 6-5
2021 Rankings: Total offense 23rd FCS; Total defense 46th FCS
Player to Watch: WR Drae McCray. He closed the 2021 season with 237 receiving yards against Tennessee Tech, the second-best single-game showing in Austin Peay history, trailing only Harold "Red" Robert's 252 yards against Murray State in 1969.
Biggest Question: Last year, Austin Peay announced that it was leaving the Ohio Valley Conference for the ASUN Conference effective July 1, becoming the league's 13th full member. The league was formerly known as the Atlantic Sun Conference. Last year was the ASUN's first football season with just Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State.
Austin Peay gives the league six football teams, giving it an automatic qualifier for the FCS playoffs. Kennesaw State is considered the team to beat.
On the field, the Governors may have just as many questions. They had 14 players earn first- or second-team OVC honors last season, including the league's Defensive Player of the Year Koby Perry. However, only two are still on the roster: McCray (who is listed as 5-8), and kicker Maddux Trujillo.
Location: Clarksville, Tennessee
Colors: Red and white
Mascot: The Governor
Coaching Changes During Saban Era at Alabama: Five
Last Time Beat Alabama: First meeting
Last Time Won Conference Championship: 2019
National Championships: None
FCS Playoff Appearances: One, 2019
Consensus All-Americans During Saban Era:
First-Round NFL Picks During Saban Era: None.
2022 NFL Draft: None.
Last Four Recruiting Class Rankings: Ranked 143 in 2022 per 247Sports composite. It was No. 130 in 2021, No. 186 in 2020, and No. 165 in 2019.
Aug 27: at Western Kentucky
Sept. 3: vs. Presbyterian
Sept. 10: vs. Mississippi Valley State
Sept. 17: at Alabama A&M
Sept. 24: vs. Eastern Kentucky
Oct. 1: at Central Arkansas
Oct. 15: vs. Murray State
Oct. 29: Jacksonville State
Nov. 5: at North Alabama
Nov. 12: at Kennesaw State
Nov. 19: at Alabama
Did You Know?
If you've never been to an Austin Peay game, yes, the fans actually do chant "Let's Go Peay" while rooting for their team.
It's one of the best known cheers in college sports (the team website is LetsGoPeay.com), and can be a little difficult to do with a straight face.
There's actually more to it, as well.
In the 1970s, the Governors had an outstanding basketball player named James "Fly" Williams. The guard went from being a streetball legend in Brooklyn to scoring 1,541 points in two seasons at Austin Peay (averaging 28.5 per game) and led the Governors to the 1973 and 1974 NCAA tournaments.
The original cheer was “The Fly is open, let’s go Peay.”
This is the first story in a series previewing Alabama's 2022 opponents.