NASHVILLE — Eastern Kentucky is back at the top where it has dominated Ohio Valley Conference football for so long.
The Colonels, who won their league-high 21st championship last season in a three-way tie for the title, are the pre-season favorite for the 12th time in the past 25 years.
"At Eastern they measure your teams by OVC championships, playoff berths and things like that," All-American senior running back Matt Denham said at Monday's OVC Media Day. "Based on last season, we accomplished one of our goals to win the OVC championship and make the playoffs. Even though we were not able to win (in the playoffs), it was a huge step on the national scene."
Eastern Kentucky received 12 of 18 first-place votes and 124 points in a vote of the league's coaches and sports information directors.
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The Colonels have 17 starters back — all but one on offense — and placed 10 players on the Pre-season All-OVC squad. Denham, on the Walter Payton Award Watch list with Murray State quarterback Casey Brockman, averaged a nation's best 184.5 yards in the final eight games after becoming the starter.
Senior T.J. Pryor needs 622 yards to become the Colonels' all-time passing leader. Junior Anthony Brown (3.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss) leads the defense, moving to linebacker.
But EKU fifth-year coach Dean Hood noted that co-champ Tennessee Tech wasn't among the top half of the poll last pre-season, nor was 2010 co-champ Southeast Missouri the year before.
"There's much, much parity in this league," Hood said. "... I think people have a view of Eastern Kentucky and the domination because of what Roy Kidd did. ... People don't realize there was a period from 1997 to 2007 when Eastern Kentucky didn't win the league.
"I think the score of the league has changed. Somebody being that dominant is very difficult I think nowadays because there is so much of a level playing field."
This season, for instance, most of the OVC teams return quarterbacks that are multi-year starters.
Jacksonville State, last year's favorite and fellow co-champ, has two starting QBs returning in redshirt senior Marques Ivory (injured in the opener) and Coty Blanchard. The Gamecocks received the OVC's other six No. 1 votes and 117 points.
Murray State (85 points) was ranked third, and Brockman was chosen OVC Pre-season Player of the Year a second time. Tennessee Tech (83), with senior Tre Lamb back as signal-caller, was fourth after coming off its first FCS playoff berth ever and first OVC crown since 1975.
"To me, it's whoever's got the defense and can deal with the other person's quarterback," said Jacksonville State Coach Jack Crowe. "Somebody's going to evolve in this league as being a defense that can play on the back end and neutralize these quarterbacks, and that's to me where the point of separation is. That and whoever can consistently have a good running game."
Jacksonville State, which opens and closes the season with SEC powers Arkansas and Florida, returns All-American running back Washaun Ealey (1,082 yards), a former Georgia transfer.
Murray's Brockman (3,276, 25 TDs) leads Racers Coach Chris Hatcher's "Hatch Attack" offense and can break the OVC all-time records for passing yardage and total offense.