Nashville, TN (Sports Network) - Coaches are always saying the expectations their team faces from the outside don't come close to comparing to what it creates for itself.
Ohio Valley Conference football coaches flat-out admit there's pressure on the outside. Until their teams start winning FCS playoff games on an annual basis, the national profile of their excellent conference will grow only so much.
"That's the thorn in our side right now," UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said Monday at OVC media day, where defending champion Eastern Illinois was installed as the favorite in the preseason poll.
Last season reflected the OVC's predicament. The conference posted some impressive non-conference wins, was the highest-scoring conference in the nation and was full of its usual depth of quality teams.
But only Eastern Illinois advanced to the playoffs with the OVC's automatic bid. The conference had three eight-win teams - Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee State and UT Martin - shut out of at-large bids.
"I think that's a mistake that the committee made," Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood said.
The NCAA selection committee could have been influenced by the OVC's lack of playoff success - no wins by its participants since 2000 - than strictly considering the teams on their 2012 merits.
So OVC teams know they have to do more this season. Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State, which had the most selections to the preseason all-conference team with seven, seemingly stand the best chance to grab national attention, although Eastern Kentucky, the winningest program in conference history, edged TSU for second in the preseason poll. TSU may have to play without two-year starting quarterback Michael German because of off-the-field issues.
The OVC's big non-conference wins last season included EIU over Southern Illinois, EKU over Coastal Carolina, UT Martin over Memphis and Tennessee State over Bethune-Cookman. But the conference needs such big wins in November and December as the ones in September.
The expansion of the national playoffs this year bodes well for the nine-team OVC gaining more than one qualifier.
"I thought last year from top to bottom was the most competitive that the league had been," Murray State coach Chris Hatcher said. "I thought just the talent, the schemes, there was a lot more pressure on you each and every week. I think at the end of the day, we need to get a few teams in the playoffs and we need to have success. I think that's what it boils down to."
While OVC teams still lack the national respect of, say, the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the depth of its title races has little mercy.
Southeast Missouri State was the surprise champion in 2010, then an also-ran in 2011. Tennessee Tech was the surprise champion in 2011, then an also-ran last season. Eastern Illinois was the surprise champion last season.
Nobody in Charleston, Ill., is expecting EIU to continue the pattern this season. Of course, it helps to return preseason offensive player of the year Erik Lora at wide receiver, and the quarterback who gets him the ball, fellow Walter Payton Award candidate Jimmy Garoppolo. They helped the Panthers rank seventh nationally in total offense (470.9 yards per game) and eighth in scoring offense (36.5 points per game).
But, sure enough, when the Panthers reached the playoffs, they went to South Dakota State and got unceremoniously dumped in the first round.
"That feeling really sticks with you through the offseason," Garoppolo said, "and motivates you."
OVC coaches would concur.
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
Voted on by Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors
1. Eastern Illinois (12 first-place votes), 122 points
2. Eastern Kentucky (4), 114
3. Tennessee State (2), 90
4. Jacksonville State, 87
5. UT Martin, 78
6. (tie) Murray State, 53
6. (tie) Tennessee Tech, 53
8. Southeast Missouri State, 35
9. Austin Peay, 16
PRESEASON ALL-OVC TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Erik Lora, WR, Eastern Illinois
Defensive Player of the Year - Steven Godbolt III, CB, Tennessee State
QB - Jimmy Garoppolo, Sr. Eastern Illinois
RB - DeMarcus James, Jr., Jacksonville State
RB - Jaamal Berry, Sr. Murray State
WR - Erik Lora, Sr., Eastern Illinois
WR - Walter Powell, Sr. Murray State
TE - A.C. Leonard, Jr., Tennessee State
C - Demetrius Rhaney, Sr., Tennessee State
OG - Kadeem Edwards, Sr., Tennessee State
OG - Collin Seibert, Jr., Eastern Illinois
OT - Ben Stansfield, Sr., Austin Peay
OT - Tarik Milner, Jr., Jacksonville State
OT - Wesley Sherrill, Sr., Tennessee Tech
DL - Pat Wertz, Sr., Eastern Illinois
DL - Shawn Shupperd, Sr., Eastern Kentucky
DL - Antonio Harper, Sr., Tennessee State
DL - DJ Roberts, Sr., UT Martin
LB - Anthony Brown, Sr., Eastern Kentucky
LB - Ben Johnson, Sr., UT Martin
LB - Ichiro Vance, Sr., Eastern Kentucky
LB - Nick Thrasher, Jr., Tennessee State
DB - Nick Beard, Sr., Eastern Illinois
DB - Steven Godbolt III, Jr., Tennessee State
DB - Brandon Stanley, Jr., Eastern Kentucky
DB - Daniel Fitzpatrick, Jr., Tennessee State
PK - Cameron Berra, Sr., Eastern Illinois
P - Chad Zinchini, Sr., Tennessee Tech
Return - Walter Powell, Sr., Murray State