By ADD SEYMOUR JR.
|TSU WR Patrick Smith|
Tennessee State has the same typical run every season – they do really well with their primarily HBCU non-conference schedule, and then run into problems when they begin playing Ohio Valley Conference foes.
That’s understandable, as Jacksonville State, which is the OVC’s preseason pick to win the conference title this season, has been picked to win the OVC each of the previous three seasons and has gone on to finish on top each time.
Then Eastern Illinois, which is picked to finish fourth this season, won three of the five OVC titles before then.
So what does all that mean this year to the conference’s only HBCU, Tennessee State?
The Tigers, 7-4 (4-3 OVC) last season, are picked to finish third in the OVC this season after finishing fourth in the conference last season. The Tigers finished 4-3 in the OVC play, with six of their games decided by a total of just 21 points.
But they are an experienced and talented team that sees themselves as a team that finished just a game away from last season's FCS playoffs and can make a better run at a national title this season.
“Our biggest challenge is to take them one game at a time and stay focused,” said TSU Head Coach Rod Reed said during the OVC Media Day. “We play classic games… and sometimes we get hyped up for those games and then every other game is just another game. I think we’ve got to treat all of them as the same. Every game is a classic game. Every game you’ve got to play like its fourth and goal.”
The Tigers seven starters returning on offense, including the OVC’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year in wide receiver Patrick Smith. Smith was the conference’s second leading receiver last year and tied for tops in scoring with 13 TDs. His wide receiver mate will be last season’s OVC Newcomer of the Year Steven Newbold, who averaged 19.1 yards a reception in catching 41 passes for 784 yards and six touchdowns.
The question is who will be throwing the ball to Smith and Newbold this season. Ronald Butler, a senior who had 28 touchdowns and led the second-best passing offense in the OVC last year, has graduated and presumed replacement, O’Shay Ackerman-Carter, decided to transfer. In will step, Treon Harris, an intriguing transfer from FBS Florida. Harris started during parts of two seasons at Florida, throwing for nearly 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also ran for 570 yards and three TDs.
“With a player like Treon, because he is so versatile, he poses a big threat,” said TSU linebacker Chris Collins. “With us dealing with him all spring, you don’t know what you’re going to get from him because he can throw and he can run. It’s hard to game plan against quarterbacks like that because he goes against all the rules. So, he’s going to be a big threat for us.”
Leading rusher Erick Evans is also gone, as well as two All-OVC offensive linemen. The Tigers have two FBS transfers, Chidi Okeke (LSU) and Christian Morris (Ole Miss) to replace them.
On defense, where the Big Blue usually shine, they return nine starters, including 15 of their top 19 tacklers from last season. That includes preseason All-OVC defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko. Ogundeko was an All-Conference pick last season, even as he missed three games due to injuries. He had 48 tackles, 11 for losses, and 5.5 sacks. Collins led TSU with 87 tackles and safety Laquarius Cook had 66 even though injuries kept him out of the last two games of the 2016 season.
That early season schedule this year won’t be like previous years. They start off at FBS Georgia State which is opening their new stadium, the former Turner Field/Olympic Stadium in Atlanta. They go to Memphis to play rival Jackson State and then to Tampa for a new classic game against Florida A&M. Then it’s right into a tough OVC schedule. They go to UT-Martin, who TSU beat in a wild game last season, but UTM is picked to finish second ahead of TSU. Then their first home game is against a tough Eastern Illinois squad. The Tigers take on Jacksonville State in the final game of the season.
"We don’t set boundaries, we don’t set limitations," Collin said. "We are shooting for the stars. We want to reach the national championship and win that as well."
“Our kids are really excited,” added Reed. “I’m fired up about this season. I think they are going to take the challenge. They are going to play with a chip on their shoulders.”