Chuck Bitner

SAC Week 6 Preview

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It’s hard to believe that we’re already at mid-season. Fall always moves quickly when there is thrilling football to be seen. The good part about it is that we are now in the meaty part of the schedule where nearly all games have conference standings on the line, and soon, we’ll be talking about playoffs. After this week, I will begin tracking the SR2 contenders and giving my thoughts on who looks like a playoff caliber team.

Ranking the teams starts to get really interesting at mid-season because each week there are more results to compare and contrast, and in some ways, conflict. Wingate is now the only unbeaten, so they ascend to #1 but what do I do with Carson-Newman, Catawba and Newberry? Newberry beat Carson-Newman, but Carson-Newman beat Catawba, who was my previous #1. All I will say is that it’s a week to week game. My rankings (which are utterly meaningless) are very fluid and based completely on my opinion.

To this point, I have seen all SAC teams in person except Newberry – I’ll see the Wolves a couple of times later this season. I think Catawba is still the most impressive team that I have seen and I still consider them the favorite to win the SAC. But results are what they are and how I rank the teams today is not necessarily the same as how I would project the teams to finish. Here is how I rank the eight SAC members with five weeks down.

1. Wingate – The Bulldogs were idle last week but ascend to #1 by virtue of being the only remaining unbeaten team in the SAC. Wingate has shown some vulnerabilities, but the off week came at a good time and should have allowed them to work on a few key areas. If they beat Pembroke this weekend, they will be in a great spot to start the second half run towards the SAC championship.

2. Carson-Newman – The Eagles still have a losing record in conference play (1-2) but a few critical mistakes are the only thing keeping them from being the clear front runner in the league. With losses to two top contenders it may already be too late to challenge for the conference championship, but playoffs are still on the table, and this looks like a team with the potential to peak at the right time. Even if they are not in play for the SAC title, they could be a very dangerous team if they can make their way into the post season. There are no gimmies in the schedule, but as things stand today, Carson-Newman should be the better team in all their remaining match ups.

3. Catawba – Catawba still has a better record than Carson-Newman and still has a better shot at winning the SAC, but I’m a big believer in head to head competition. The Indians were humbled by a C-N team that was inspired to play its best football and they took it on the chin at the Creek. They are still a very good team, however, and possibly still the favorite to win the SAC. They have plenty of big games coming up that can put them right back at the top of the order. The Indians have outscored their opponents this season by nearly 100 points, which speaks to their overall strength on both sides of the ball.

4. Newberry – It seems like it has been a quiet year so far for Newberry. That is partly because they’ve played only one conference game, and the 0-2 start - combined with the impressive starts of Catawba and Wingate - shifted attention away from the Wolves. But that may be about to change. Newberry begins a stretch of six straight SAC games on Saturday. The Wolves are continuing to improve, and with their toughest competition coming late in the season, they are in a very good position right now. Big road games at Wingate and Catawba will probably define their season.

5. Limestone – Fifth place in this list seems like a lot less than Limestone deserves. You won’t find a team in D2 with any more guts than the Saints have. They are 3-1 against Division II with the only blemish being a tight ball game at North Greenville. All three wins have been in overtime. This team always finds ways to overcome mistakes and make big plays when they desperately need them. They need to play more consistently on offense, but there is a lot to be said for a team that delivers when it matters most, and that’s what they’ve been doing. Limestone has every right to believe that they are a legit contender for the SAC championship at this point.

6. Lenoir-Rhyne – The Bears are still working towards consistency, but they’re starting to have success with much more frequency. Last week’s win at Tusculum wasn’t just a W, it was very well rounded performance. They made big plays on offense, defense and special team. They shut down a Tusculum offense that has shown potential this year and they dominated the line of scrimmage with an explosive running game.

7. Mars Hill – The Lions had opportunities in their overtime loss to Limestone last week, but couldn’t stop the Saints when they had their backs to the wall. The offense continues to move the ball well, but untimely turnovers and penalties have hurt them badly in the last two weeks. They have to correct that in a hurry because they need to win four of the next six to have a winning season and with Newberry, C-N and Wingate ahead, that’s going to be a tall order.

8. Tusculum – The Pioneers took some backwards steps in last week’s loss to Lenoir-Rhyne. The offense, which had been showing marked improvement over last year, could muster only 257 total yards and a lowly 49 on the ground. The normally reliable defense got pounded by LR’s running game for 256 yards. I look at this week’s meeting with Mars Hill as a must win if the Pioneers are going to have a shot at a winning season. They close out the season with Newberry, Catawba, Carson-Newman and Wingate.

Week Six Previews

North Greenville (3-2) at Catawba (4-1, 1-1) 1:30
If you’re Catawba, you really want to bounce back in a big way after the disappointing performance at Carson-Newman last week. Well, you’ll have your Opportunity. North Greenville comes to town fresh off a near miss at FCS Kennesaw State last week. The Crusaders trailed by as much as 14 but came back to take a lead late in the fourth quarter. KSU was able to mount one final scoring drive and took all the remaining time off the clock in the process, but it was a heck of an effort by the Crusaders.

After that performance in front of 6,000+ in Georgia, NGU won’t have any fear in taking on a Catawba team that has been among the best in SR2. It’s going to be a tough contest for Catawba, but I do think they can bounce back with a big win. NGU has been inconsistent on offense at times. They allow more yards rushing and passing than they accumulate with their own offense. They’ve had some problems stopping the run, and I think that will play right into Catawba’s strengths. The Indians pass with more success than they run, but they are very well balanced and that makes them dangerous. A couple of turnovers hurt them last week but if they clean that up, I think the offense will be back on track.

The threat of NGU comes from the strong running game. Ashton Heard and Tracy Scott are both star running backs that average more than 5 yards per carry. When the Crusaders can get them going, they have the potential to take over a game and Catawba can be attacked with the running game. Carson-Newman blew them up for 333 yards last week (albeit with a different type of rushing attack). So there is an opportunity for NGU to have success with Heard and Scott.

I expect this to be the best game of the week. I think Catawba will right the wrongs from last week, but they will have to earn it.

Catawba 28 North Greenville 21

Newberry (3-2, 2-0) at Lenoir-Rhyne (2-3, 1-2) 2:00
Wolves and Bears clash in Hickory on Saturday afternoon for Lenoir-Rhyne’s annual homecoming and family weekend. Moretz Stadium will be packed when the teams take the field and that will be a big boost for a home team that will already be packing a ton of confidence.

The Bears had an all around solid performance last week at Tusculum and playing in front of the homecoming crowd will only provide more inspiration. For LR to win, I think it’s pretty simple. They have to run the ball with authority. If they can get somewhere north of 170 yards on the ground, I think they can do it. In the wins over NGU and Tusculum, they rushed for 182 and 262, respectively. A solid run game seems to really help them set up the pass, and they are finally starting to have a little more success with deep balls.

Newberry has had some mixed results on defense this year. They stuffed UNCP last week and held up well against Carson-Newman’s rushing attack, but struggled to stop the run at Virginia Union a few weeks back. If LR can make something happen on the ground, I think it’s going to be a good game. LR’s defense is playing very well right now and Newberry is containable. The 28 points they scored last week against UNCP was a season high against a D2 opponent. LR’s stats against the run are average, but I think they are getting excellent line play and will make it hard for Newberry to run the ball. If they do that, I think it gives them an edge. Newberry has been using multiple quarterbacks in the last few games and if neither shows a hot hand and they continue to rotate, LR has a chance to keep them from getting comfortable.

I’m going with an upset in this one. I think LR can match up well in the right places and get a big win for the homecoming crowd.

Lenoir-Rhyne 28 Newberry 24

Mars Hill (2-3, 1-2) at Tusculum (2-3, 0-2) 6:00

Both teams should come into this game very hungry. Mars Hill is coming off a tough loss in what was a winnable game at home. The OT loss could be a tough one to get over, but they need to put it behind them quickly if they’re going to come out on top in the short trip north to Tusculum. The Pioneers should be displeased with their performance at home last week in which they were held to only seven points.

Tusculum has the better defense but the inconsistency of their offense is going make it very difficult to keep pace with Mars Hill. The Lions offense has hurt itself with mistakes, but it boasts an explosive passing game. The Lions have two of the SAC’s top three receivers in Keshaun Taylor and Craig Rucker and the league’s top passer in David Salmon.

Tusculum’s upper hand in this game is turnovers. Their defense is good at creating them and Mars Hill has had some problems with ball security. If the Lions don’t turn the ball over, I think they win. If Tusculum and can be +2 in turnover margin, I think they win. How that plays out is impossible to predict, so I’ll go with what I know, and that is Mars Hill’s big play potential on offense.

Mars Hill 31 Tusculum 24

Carson-Newman (3-2, 1-2) at Limestone (3-2, 2-0) 6:00
In stark contrast to the Mars Hill – Tusculum game, both of these teams will enter week six feeling quite good about themselves. Limestone prevailed in overtime for the third time this season, while Carson-Newman is coming off a hard earned and very impressive upset of previously unbeaten Catawba.

Limestone thrives on pressure situations but that lifestyle may be put to the test this Saturday. Carson-Newman leads the SAC in total defense and rush defense. Limestone’s offense has been improving week to week, but I think the Eagles will have the toughest defense they’ve seen so far. The Saints have the potential to move the ball in a hurry, but consistency and efficiency still elude them at times. They rank third in SAC in passing offense, but much lower in passing offense efficiency. Carson-Newman is very good at bringing pressure and Saints QB Ivan Corbin will have to contend with that all day.

Limestone’s defense has been making a believer out of me, but last week they gave up a lot of big plays to Mars Hill. Carson-Newman will attack very differently, and Limestone may be better equipped to stop the run, but C-N also has a big play threat in the passing game with Dorren Miller.

I think this can be a very good game. Limestone knows how to elevate their play when they have to survive, but I have a feeling the win over Catawba is going to launch Carson-Newman into a very strong run over the second half of the season.

Carson-Newman 35 Limestone 23

UNC Pembroke (1-4) at Wingate (4-0, 2-0) 6:00
Wingate returns home for just the second time this season as the undefeated Bulldogs host the struggling UNCP Braves. Wingate is coming off a bye week while UNCP enters the game with a three week losing streak. Since rolling up 66 points at Elizabeth City State back in week two, the Braves have not scored more than 10 points in a game. The Braves posted a season low 6 points at Newberry last week, which was their worst output since a 21-3 loss to Wingate in 2014.

The Braves are struggling with the rush and the pass, averaging less than 300 total yards per game. The Braves’s leading rusher averages just 32 yards per game and quarterback Dominick Samson has thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6). A turnaround this weekend would seem unlikely. Wingate has a formidable defensive front that is hard to run on and they’re good at getting to the quarterback.

UNCP’s only chance to stay in this game is to keep it low scoring, just as Lenoir-Rhyne did two weeks ago against Wingate. I think the off week will have helped Wingate work out a few things with their offense and they should be equipped to pull away in the second half of this game. If Wingate’s offense can churn out first downs on the ground and give UNCP few possessions to work with, the Bulldogs can pull away in the second half.

Wingate 31 UNCP 16

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Updated 10-05-2017 at 05:40 PM by Chuck Bitner

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  1. shiplb54's Avatar
    If only you put the P back on the beginning of your SAC.

    I miss your writing Chuck! Good to see a new group of people get to enjoy it, though.
  2. ScarletIndian's Avatar
    i know this is old, but you contradict urself a bit
    u say u believe in H2H, but didnt give weight to NC's H2H win over CN. u also mention that CC is still the fav. to win the SAC, although NC was preseason #1. for these reasons i feel like u missed with ur rankings. NC's losses were non-SAC, & although NC was only 1-0 SAC at the time, they HAD knocked off CN (who knocked off CC), & est. themselves as top cont. of those 3. if anything, should've been 1.WU, 2.NC, 3.CN, 4.CC, etc. just my 2 cents