As we approach the end of summer and enter the second half of the year, 2020 has been one that many in our nation would like to forget. Day in and day out we are reminded of just how cruel and unpredictable the year has been. While no sporting event can compare to what many American’s have been dealing with over the past few months, tonight’s football game between Austin Peay & Central Arkansas hopes to give us a brief break from all that has been going on in the world. While it’s just a game between two relatively unknown FCS teams, its one that I am looking forward to. It is also a game filled with story lines and examples of two programs that have had to overcome adversity and deal with unpredictable events leading up to tonight’s game.
A Season on the Brink
The fact that this game is even being played is a story in and of itself. Most of the 127 FCS programs have cancelled the Fall season and hope to play the majority of their schedule during the spring semester. However, 15 programs have non conference games scheduled for the fall semester including both Austin Peay & Central Arkansas who will meet in college football's first game, tonight in Montgomery, Alabama. Earlier this month after 8 of the 13 NCAA FCS conferences announced that they aren't playing conference football this fall, the NCAA declared that an FCS playoff for a national champion will not be held.The thought of any FCS teams still playing at this point seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.
Austin Peay will meet a Central Arkansas squad that handed it its first loss of the 2019 season, which ultimately saw both teams reach the FCS Playoffs. Aside from being the first and only college football game being played across the nation, there are a number of other compelling reasons to watch tonight’s game, two of which are the stories of the starting Quarterback’s on both sides of the field.
Breylin Smith Central Arkansas QB
Central Arkansas, the 2019 Southland Conference co-champ and preseason favorite this season, begins a nine-game schedule, which is the largest among the 15 FCS programs that are set to play this fall. The Bears return an impressive 18 starters this season and are led by their standout QB Breylin Smith. Smith is probably the best QB that you’ve never heard of but as impressive as he is on the field, it’s what he’s overcome off the field that makes him so easy to root for.
On Dec. 27, 2003, when Breylin was only 5 years old, his mother died in a car accident at the young age of 27. After the death of his mother, Breylin went to live with his grandparents who took on the responsibility of raising him. Smith was a natural growing up and caught the eye of current Central Arkansas head coach Nathan Brown at an early age. Smith was invited to attend UCA’s camp the summer before his sophomore year in high school when Brown was UCA’s offensive coordinator & quarterbacks coach. Coach Brown recognized the talent in Smith at a young age and offered him his first scholarship at age 14. Smith committed to Central Arkansas the summer before his senior year of high school and although the future looked bright, there was more tragedy in store for Smith.
In 2017, during Smith’s redshirt season at UCA, his grandfather, who helped raise him, died after suffering a brain aneurysm at the age of 65. The following year, in Smith's first season as the starter, he suffered a broken ankle in the fourth game of the season against Sam Houston State. After overcoming the loss of his grandfather and a devastating injury, it was in 2019 where Smith had his breakout season, starting all 13 games, setting the UCA single-season record for passing yards with 3,704, tying the school record for passing touchdowns at 32 and accounting for 75% of the Bears total offense. With a host of weapons returning in 2020, including deep threat WR Tyler Hudson who averaged close to 18 yards per catch and just under 1,000 yards receiving for the season, Breylin Smith is poised to have another great season.
Jeremiah Oatsvall Austin Peay QB
The starting Quarterback on the other side of the field has had to overcome his fair share of adversity as well. Jeremiah Oatsvall is set to return as the starter at quarterback for Austin Peay in 2020 after missing almost the entire 2019 season. As the opening day starter in 2019, Oatsvall threw for 232 yards and three touchdowns against NC Central last season.The following week, Oatsvall went down with a season-ending injury on the ninth play from scrimmage in week two against who else but tonight’s opponent in Central Arkansas. Going through a season ending injury for any QB is difficult but even more difficult was watching his replacement JaVaughn Craig step in and have a record-setting season, leading the Governors to the Ohio Valley Conference Championship and the FCS Playoff Quarterfinals. Now that he's healthy and back as the starting QB, Jeremiah Oatsvall wants to remind everyone just how special of a QB he is.
With only 25 career games under his belt, Oatsvall ranks among the Governors all-time top-10 in pass efficiency (first, 137.6), quarterback rushing touchdowns (third, 12), quarterback rushing yards (third, 970), passing touchdowns (fourth, 30), touchdown's responsible for (fourth, 43), total offense per game (fourth, 160.5 yards), total offense (sixth, 4,013 yards), passing yards per game (sixth, 120.6 yards), passing yards (seventh, 3,016 yards), and pass completions (tenth, 210). If Oatsvall remains healthy, those numbers will only improve, as Austin Peay returns nearly all of the offensive line and skill position players that led the Governor’s to the best season in program history.
An Offense Loaded with Talent
This Offense has a chance to be scary good, as a veteran offensive line, combined with a loaded receiving corp gives Oatsvall the opportunity to return to his 2018 form. Oatsvall ranked in the OVC's top-10 in both rushing and passing during his last complete season in 2018. After spending most of 2019 observing from the sideline, the dual-threat quarterback is excited to once again lead the offense from under center. Oatsvall can take comfort in the fact that nearly the entire offensive line from 2019 returns as the Gov’s return 51 of the 75 (68 percent) starts made by an offensive line that allowed an OVC-low 14 sacks. They also add a newcomer on the offensive line in Connecticut transfer Robert Holmes. Holmes appeared in 24 games over two seasons for the Huskies, and will begin his Austin Peay career as a redshirt junior.
Deep & Talented Wide Receivers
The Wide Receivers for Austin Peay should be among the best in the FCS this year. According to the coaching staff, they have the ability to go four and five wide and have six or seven guys they feel comfortable playing in games.The best of the group all and one of Oatsvall’s favorite weapons is sure to be the OVC's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, DeAngelo Wilson. In 2019 as a Junior, Wilson became only the third receiver in program history to record a 1,000-yard campaign, setting program records in receptions (89), receiving yards (1,564), touchdown receptions (15) and receiving yards per game (104.3). Wilson also Posted eight 100-yard games during the season and scored a touchdown in 11 games, as he was named a 2019 Second Team Associated Press All-American.
Unexpected Coaching Staff Shake Up
While the Governor’s return a wealth of talent on the field, it was the unexpected turmoil off the field that could pose a potential problem. Back in July, only a couple of months before the scheduled start of college football season, former Mississippi State assistant & Austin Peay Head Coach Mark Hudspeth suddenly resigned from his post. Hudspeth spent just one season as head coach, guiding the team to an 11-4 record an Ohio Valley Conference Championship and earned the OVC's Coach of the Year. After Hudspeth unexpectedly resigned in July, It came to light that he had been serving a 20-day suspension for "unacceptable conduct". Marquase Lovings, who served as the associate head coach and defensive line coach in 2019, was named Interim head coach and will lead the team in tonight’s game. It will be up to Lovings and the other assistants to keep the team together and continue the success of 2019.
It's the first and only college football game in the country and the spotlight will be on these two programs as they take the field tonight. No matter the result, it's great to have college football back and with two outstanding QB's on the field tonight, it should be a fun and exciting matchup.