The Ohio Valley Conference isn't the Southeastern Conference, but Jacksonville State is picked to win the OVC title in a polling of the league's head coaches and sports information directors. Five conference teams got votes for first place, including Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State, in addition to Jacksonville State.
The Gamecocks finished with the best record in the OVC last season (8-3 overall, 6-1 OVC) but were ineligible for the conference crown because of a NCAA postseason ban due to an APR penalty.
This season they are once again eligible for the title and NCAA postseason with a group of 46 returning letterwinners.
Jacksonville State is without All-American quarterback Ryan Perrilloux through graduation but does have seven other offensive starters back including preseason All-OVC selections in tight end Cory Freeman and offensive linemen Tylor Chambers and Curt Porter.
Defensively senior defensive back T.J. Heath will once again be wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Heath was named an All-American by three different outlets last season when he ranked third nationally in passes defended (1.45/game) and 10th nationally in interceptions (0.55/game). His most memorable game was against Tennessee-Martin when he had three interceptions, including two of those returned for touchdowns.
Crowe, in his 11th season with the Gamecocks, is one of Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt's mentors. Crowe, then head coach at Arkansas, hired Nutt as an assistant coach in 1990.
"We've found it very hard to put all the pieces together, particularly on offense, to really know what we are," Crowe said. "But we do have the pieces."
Crowe said any success his team will have this year starts with the quarterback and the defensive line.
"We think we have both," he said. Crowe is impressed with the Rebels as well.
"I'll tell you this about Ole Miss. They probably have the best defensive line in the SEC. I have a lot of history with Ole Miss. I've never seen an Ole Miss team that didn't have a lot of talent.
"In the SEC the two teams that will still bring the running game at you and say hey you've got to stop us are Ole Miss and Alabama.
"But we approach things that way ourselves. So we look for a physical football game."
Crowe mentions some mismatches between the two teams, but says there are only a few, in his opinion.
"We don't have a bunch of mismatches. We've got some. But we feel there are some places on our team that we feel we actually have the advantage. But we don't have 11 of them. If there were 11 of them, we would probably approach the game a little differently.
"So we'll always have to play with the idea of who we are playing. We've done this before."
Ole Miss offense in brief: The Ole Miss offense wasn't supposed to be up to the standard of its defense this season. In the preseason scrimmages, that train of thought could be challenged. Of course, we were watching an offensive arsenal starring Jeremiah Masoli. Nathan Stanley and Randall Mackey are at the controls now, and both have had productive camps. The Rebel offensive line, considered a question mark or at least with a lot of inexperience, has come a long way through spring and summer. Bradley Sowell's improvement has been noteworthy. The center spot remains untested ground with A.J. Hawkins and Evan Swindall battling. Both will play Saturday, with Hawkins set to draw the start. The emergence of Melvin Harris has been big for the wide receiver corps. The backfield is basically loaded.
Ole Miss defense in brief: Fon Ingram is out for a few weeks after a knee scope. Kentrell Lockett is out indefinitely with heart irregularity. Those two, especially Lockett, a team captain, will be missed. It will interesting to see how the defense responds in his absence. Gerald Rivers is the biggest beneficiary of Lockett's absence. The linebacker corps is deep, experienced, and talented. The secondary, led by Johnny Brown and Jeremy McGee, will be tested.
Ole Miss wins if... the Rebels play like they are supposed to play. They can't just show up and expect an easy contest, not against a team picked to win its league and has anticipated this opener against an SEC team for months. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix has said he doesn't feel his defenders will have to carry this team, that there is much talent on the other side of the ball. But early on, and while the offense gets itself together, the defense will likely lead the way.
Jacksonville State pulls the upset if... the Rebels don't play like they are supposed to play. While this one could be close for a while (remember, JSU is picked as OVC champs and certainly has some talent and a veteran coaching staff), time is on Ole Miss' side.
Depth should show in the third and fourth quarters. But lay it on the ground three times and throw a couple of interceptions (remember Vandy two years ago?) and JSU could be in it fairly late.
JSU offensive player to watch: Quarterback Marques Ivory, who brings limited experience but talent and age to the position as a backup for two years. Ivory actually points out that his four running backs are ones to watch.
"There are a lot of different people we can throw at them. If we can find the right combination and rhythm, it will be good to have those fresh legs."
Ole Miss fans will watch Darius "Tig" Barksdale as well.
Says Ivory, "I like Tig already. We haven't seen much of him, but he's a hard runner and it doesn't take a big crease for him to get through it."
JSU defensive player to watch: Kevin Dix, at LB, is the team's leading returning tackler with 49 last season including 26 solos. He's a headhunter who is active and has a nose for the football. He also was credited with 5.5 sacks last season, along with 4.5 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He'll have some help, but he's a key to the Gamecock defense.
Noteworthy: JSU lost at Georgia Tech 37-17 in last year's opener and the following week fell at Florida State 19-9 in a game that by all accounts they had a chance to win late. They seem to be over the bright lights, big stadiums of the SEC and ACC, although they admit it is special to play teams from "big schools" as they call them. One other note, former Ole Miss wide receiver (1996-99) and graduate assistant (2003) Ronnie Letson is the offensive coordinator for JSU. He's been with the program since he left Oxford the most recent time following the Cotton Bowl of Jan. 2, 2004.