2023 Big South - OVC Association Preview

Previewing the Big South/OVC Association's inaugural year with a spotlight on standout players and potential FBS upsets in the mix!

Big South - OVC Association Logo with Map
Source: Big South - OVC Association

2023 begins the inaugural season involving an alliance between the Big South and OVC Football Conferences, now known as the Big South/OVC Association. The unique agreement combines the two conferences’ football membership to ensure NCAA championship access.

Association Members

Western Illinois University (Macomb, IL) will join the association beginning with the 2024 season, moving from the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Gardner-Webb Tops North Carolina A&T 38-17 To Win Big South Title
Source: Gardner-Webb Athletics

2022 Big South Champion — Gardner-Webb

Gardner-Webb finished the 2022 season 7-6 overall despite zero losses (5-0) in conference play. Gardner-Webb earned their first FCS Playoff berth in 2022 and celebrated by defeating Eastern Kentucky 52-41. The second round differed from the result that Gardner-Webb coaches, players, and fans hoped for. They were defeated relatively easily by fifth seed William & Mary 54-14.

SEMO defeated Muray St. 55-22 to earn a share of the OVC Championship
Source: SEMO Athletics
UTM defeated Eastern Illinois 34-31 to earn a share of the OVC Championship
Source: UT Martin Athletics

2022 OVC Co-Champion: Southeast Missouri (SEMO) and University of Tennessee-Martin (UTM)

SEMO finished the season with an overall record of 9-3 and 5-0 in OVC play. UTM finished the season with an overall record of 7-4 and 5-0 in OVC play.

The 2022 automatic qualifying bid to the FCS playoffs came down to the flip of a coin between the Redhawks and Skyhawks. SEMO won the flip and advanced to the playoffs. Many believed that UTM would receive an at-large bid, but that became a falsehood, and the Skyhawks were denied entry into the field of 24.

Six Big South/OVC Association Players to Watch in 2023

The association has several high-quality players to watch in 2023. I chose six players (3 offense & 3 defense) that stood out to me personally. There are many other players that I could have chosen, and in future, articles will include guys that stand out.

SEMO RB Geno Hess
Source: SEMO Athletics

Geno Hess — 6th yr. Grad. Student Running Back, SEMO

The list of accolades for Geno’s career is as long as the distance from his hometown Peoria, Il, to the SEMO campus in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (284 mi.)

In 2022 Geno was a Payton Award Finalist and finished fifth in the overall voting for the Stats Perform Walter Payton Award, garnering the highest finish for an OVC player in the voting since Eastern Illinois’s Jimmy Garoppolo won the award in 2013 and was named a Stats Perform second-team All-American. Named to several OVC honors lists, which included the OVC Offensive Player of the Year, and also this spring, Geno was named the OVC Male Athlete of the Year.

While it will be hard to surpass his 2022 accomplishments on the field and off, Geno will play a huge role in the Redhawks offense and their success in 2023.

Bryant University QB Zevi Eckhaus
Source: Bryant University Athletics

Zevi Eckhaus — Jr. Quarterback, Bryant

With Bryant moving to the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) in 2024, we will be fortunate to enjoy Zevi and his talented quarterback play. Zevi has been named to the 2023 Walter Payton Award and 2023 Big South/OVC watchlists.

In 2022 Zevi was one of the Big South’s most productive quarterbacks and one of the nation's most productive quarterbacks. That production should carry over into the upcoming season as well, playing in Head Coach Chris Merritt’s spread offense.

Zevi produced one of the most impressive seasons in Byrant school history. The second to ever pass for over 3,000 yards in a season and finished the 2022 campaign setting the school record for total yards in a season with 3,393. Threw for over 300 yards in four games. In one game against Gardner-Webb threw for a school single-game record 450 yards.

Gardner-Webb RB Narii Gaither
Source: Gardner-Webb Athletics

Narii Gaither — Redshirt Sr. Running Back, Gardner-Webb

Narii was a First Team All-Conference running back in the Big South last season and was also named the Big South Player of the Year in 2022. Unfortunately, Narii missed three games which were all losses for the Runnin’ Bulldogs in the first half of the season. The most productive game of last season for Narii came in the first round of the FCS Playoffs against Eastern Kentucky. In that game, he carried the ball 28 times for 245 yards, a career-high, and GWU high in the school's Division 1 era, which began in 2000.

Expectations for Narii are much the same production, and if he can stay healthy, his production should increase. He was named to the Walter Payton Watchlist for 2023 and the Big South/OVC Watchlist.

UT Martin DE Daylan Dotson
Source: UT Martin Athletics

Daylan Dotson — Jr. Defensive End/Edge, University of Tennessee at Martin

Daylan had one of the most productive seasons defensively in the OVC last season. He was named to the All-OVC first team and the HERO Sports FCS Sophomore All-American. Daylan led the OVC in tackles for loss in 2022, posting 14.5 TFLs and tied for 11th nationally. He also led the conference in sacks with 9.5 and finished sixth nationally.

Daylan has high expectations in 2023. He is listed on the Buck Buchanan Award Watchlist and several preseason first or second-team All-American Watchlists. Daylan has been added to the Big South/OVC Watchlist. He will have to elevate his overall production in 2023 with the graduation of team-mate John Ford II, the Skyhawks leading tackler and OVC Defensive Player of the Year. Daylan will be one if not the most productive DE/EDGE in the Big South/OVC in 2023.

Tennessee State LB K'Vaughan Pope
Source: TSU Athletics

K'Vaughan Pope — Grad. Student Inside Linebacker, Tennessee State

In K’Vaughan’s first season in Nashville, after transferring from Ohio St., he proved that he would be an asset to the Tigers defense by season's end. Against UT Martin, K’Vaughan had a season-high 13 combined tackles. His season awards included All-OVC Second Team Defense and OVC All-Newcomer Team. Appearing in only nine games in 2022, he finished second in total combined tackles with 62 and 4 tackles for loss.

In year number two of second-year Defensive Coordinator Brandon Fishers’s defensive scheme K’Vaughan should be even more productive than last season. K’vaughn is on the Big South/OVC Preseason Watchlist.

Eastern Illinois LB Elijawah Tolbert
Source: EIU Athletics

Elijawah Tolbert — Jr. Linebacker, Eastern Illinois

The lone returning starting Linebacker in 2023, Elijawah, will be expected to be a leader on the field and in the locker room. In the opening game of the 2022 campaign versus FBS opponent Northern Illinois, Elijawah, for lack of a better explanation, came out of the proverbial Panther Blue and showed out. He amassed 11 total tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and a half sack in a 34-27 loss. In the first OVC game of 2022 against Murray St., he once again proved an overlooked skill set (to fans) proving that he could also be effective in pass coverage, snagging two interceptions. The season ended with three interceptions, tied with DB Jordan Vincent for the team lead at the season's end. Eijawah is on the Big South/OVC Watchlist for 2023.

Others receiving considerations for Players to Watch in 2023

  • Paxton DeLaurent, Jr. QB, SEMO
  • Sam Franklin, R-So. RB, UT-Martin
  • Ryan Flournoy, Sr. WR, SEMO
  • Zack Gieg, Sr. C, SEMO - 2022 Rimington Award Winner, which goes to the nation’s top center in the Football Championship Subdivision.
  • Kobe McLendon, So. DL, Lindenwood

2023 Preseason Poll

The Preseason Coaches Poll appears in line with the results of the 2022 final records. The fourth through eighth positions, although, are interchangeable. They could all be shuffled with just a score of two. As with any given season, health and luck will play a huge role from the top to the bottom of the Association.

Big South - OVC 2023 Preseason Poll
Source: Big South - OVC Association

2023 FBS Upset Possibilities

Bryant at UNLV — UNLV finished 5-7 last year and opens the season with Bryant. Quarterback Zevi Eckhaus and the Bulldogs only lost by one point to its season-opening FBS opponent Florida International in 2022, showing Bryant can keep up with FBS competition.

SEMO at No. 17 Kansas State — While it is highly improbable, SEMO traveling to Manhattan for a Week One matchup with their veteran squad and expected balanced offense aided by very possibly one of the best defenses in the FCS this season, could catch the Wildcats off guard and come away with a GIANT possibly EPIC UPSET.

My Prediction for 2023 Coach of the Year

2022 OVC Coach of the Year Tom MatukewIcz is my choice for this year's Big South/OVC Association Coach of the Year. Bryant’s Head Coach, Chris Merritt, could be right in the mix at the end of the season.

Surprise Team in 2023

The Bryant Bulldogs are my sleeper team this season, led by 21 returning starters. Ten on offense, seven on defense, and four on special teams.