Chuck Bitner

SAC Week 8 Preview

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Talking about playoffs

As we enter the final month of the season we start the downhill run towards determining the SAC title and the Division II championship playoff field. On Monday, October 23, the first round of regional rankings will be released. The top 10 teams in each of the four playoff regions will be ranked. Updates to the rankings will be released on October 30 and November 3. The playoff field will be announced on Sunday November 12. The South Atlantic Conference is part of Super Region Two, along with the GSC, SIAC and new for this year, the CIAA. There are a total of 41 teams in SR2. Seven teams from each region will earn spots in the D2 playoff field.

Catawba falling to 5-2 overall and 4-2 against Division II was obviously good for Wingate, but maybe not so good for the SAC overall. Wingate is in a great position for regional rankings and the Bulldogs will be in good shape even if they drop a game (or even two) later this year. Catawba and Carson-Newman are the next best possibilities for the SAC to get a second team into the picture. Both are currently 4-2 against D2 (keep in mind, only D2 games are counted in the W-L record). Catawba’s resume has been getting weaker as the season has gone on and Carson-Newman has the head to head win over them, which the playoff committees historically put a lot of value on.

If I was asked to pick the playoff teams as of now, here is how I would rank them, strictly based on my own observations and opinions. I will update my rankings on Sunday and give more opinion on what I expect to see from the NCAA committee.

1. West Alabama
2. Delta State
3. Wingate
4. Virginia State
5. Bowie State
6. West Georgia
7. Carson-Newman
8. Virginia Union

Ranking the SAC

Wingate – The Bulldogs are in full control of the SAC. They are the only team left without a conference loss, putting them in the driver’s seat of the championship and the post season. There are no gimmies in this conference but the Bulldogs will be favored in all their remaining games. Newberry is the most critical game left and that one is at home.

Carson-Newman – The Eagles are doing what they need to do. They keep winning and keep improving. They’re not perfect, but they’re still a young team in a lot of areas and they are getting better week to week. They probably have to win out to be in post season contention, but three of the last four are at home.

Catawba – A few weeks ago, Catawba was the clear cut team to beat. But now that’s happened. Twice. Both were conference losses. Unless things get cray, they’re out of the running for the league title and now just have to refocus on winning games to say alive for the playoffs. My immediate concern for them is hangover from last week. That will be a difficult loss to get over.

Tusculum – The Pioneers have been stuck on 4-7 for a couple of years, but just one more W this year would get them beyond that and if they can win two of the last three, they’ll have a winning season. It won’t be easy with Catawba, Carson-Newman and Wingate left to play. They’ll be the underdogs in every game, but that’s been the case in most of their wins this year so who am I to say they can’t do it?

Newberry – Newberry’s hopes of a repeat SAC title took a huge blow last week. The Wolves have yet to play Wingate, so they can still tie and win the title on a tie breaker, but they have to play much better than they did last week. The offense is struggling and they’re still not settled with either quarterback. With two D2 losses and only nine D2 games on the schedule, their playoff hopes are in serious jeopardy.

Lenoir-Rhyne – 2017 has been all ups and downs for LR, but last week was certainly one of the highs. As I’ve been saying all year, when the Bears can run the ball, they can play with anybody. If they get to 175 yards or better on the ground, you’re in trouble. They have to win the final three games to have a winning season but they enter their bye week on a super high note and if they come back next week with the same effort we saw at Tusculum and Limestone, they’ll have a chance to finish strong.

Limestone – It took all season, but Limestone finally looked like a fourth year program in their 35-7 home loss to Lenoir-Rhyne. The inconsistency of the passing game caught up with them and they were not able to do anything on the ground, leading to their worst offensive day of the season. The defense may have some problems with depth as the season enters the final month. The Saints had a lot of problems slowing down LR’s running game.

Mars Hill - The Lions kicked off a three game home stand last week, but suffered their fourth straight defeat. Mars Hill has only 10 games on the schedule so a winning season is already off the table and they have to win the final three to finish .500. Seems very unlikely with Wingate, UNCP and Newberry making up the final month of the schedule.
Week Eight Previews

Wingate (6-0, 3-0) at Mars Hill (2-5, 1-4) 1:30

On paper, this is not really a close contest. The two teams are very obviously going in different directions. Wingate has started the season with six straight wins, while Mars Hill has lost their last four. It would seem to be an easy win for Wingate, but match ups like this one have all the makings of a trap game.

I don’t think Wingate is going to lose, but it would not surprise me if this game is a struggle. It’s one of the last opportunities for Mars Hill do something special this year. They’re already locked into a season of .500 or worse, but an upset of an unbeaten conference foe in front of the homecoming crowd would be a nice highlight to a difficult season.

There are some matchups that could give Mars Hill a chance. The Lions have the SAC’s most productive passing offense, averaging 310 yards per game. Some teams have had success throwing the ball against Wingate, particularly with big plays. Mars Hill has a lot of big play potential with their diverse receivers and those matchups could help them score enough to make this a very interesting game. The challenge for Mars Hill is to standup to Wingate’s downhill running game and I just don’t see that happening. The Lions are the only defense in the SAC allowing more than 200 yards per game on the ground. It should be a good day for Wingate’s duo of Pittman and Hayes.

Wingate 34 Mars Hill 21

Catawba (5-2, 1-2) at Tusculum (4-3, 2-2) 2:30

Last week brought vastly different fortunes for these teams. Catawba lost their second straight SAC game, all but ending their hopes of a conference title, while Tusculum picked up a hard earned and unexpected upset win at Newberry.

Catawba is in a different place than Wingate, but this is definitely another trap game where an underdog could cause a lot of problems. Both teams have a lot to play for in this matchup, but Catawba may be a bit deflated, while Tusculum is riding a high. The Indians are in a situation where hangover from the previous week tends to happen to a lot of teams. If they are not well prepared, this could be a real challenge.

The good news for Catawba is that their struggling rush defense, which took poundings from the powerful running games of NGU and Wingate should get a reprieve. Tusculum posts barely 100 yards per game on the ground. The Pioneers have much more success through the air, but that remains a strong area for the Catawba defense. Tusculum’s offense is also very inconsistent and the Catawba defense should be very hungry after failing to hold fourth quarter leads in the last two games.

Tusculum does have a solid defense but if Catawba can get back to a balanced attack on offense, this can be the bounce back win that they need.

Catawba 27 Tusculum 17

North Greenville (3-4) at Carson-Newman (5-2, 3-2) 3:00

Since the week four loss to Newberry, Carson-Newman has methodically built themselves back up into a playoff contender. The Eagles have won three in a row, including the huge win over Catawba a few weeks back. During that same stretch, North Greenville has gone 0-3. But it’s not like the Crusaders haven’t been showing up. They came within a play of upsetting FCS Kennesaw State, rallied from 20 points down to force overtime with Catawba, and had a back and forth battle with Florida Tech heading into the fourth quarter last week.

I think this game is going to be about how hungry each team is. Carson-Newman is in a good position, but they cannot afford another loss if they want to stay in contention for the post season. North Greenville is 3-3 against Division II so I think their playoff hopes are already gone, but they are still fighting for their lives. Their three remaining games are against three teams I currently have ranked in top 7 in SR2, including the top two! Future GSC goes Delta State and West Alabama await and they do not want to go into those games having lost won on September 23. So this game is a must have for North Greenville.

If the Crusaders are going to pull off a win, they have to run the ball. They have a good quarterback in Will Hunter, but the passing game hasn’t always been efficient or reliable. It’s had it’s moments, but Hunter’s efficiency rate of 120. 1 is only average and they are not doing a good enough job of getting the ball to their most reliable receiver, Mason Sanders (17 catches, 234 yards, 1 TD). They do have an excellent rushing attack with Ashton Heard (90.4 yards per game) and Tracy Scott (60.7 yards per game). Unfortunately, they are going against an Eagles team that runs the ball and stops the run better than the rest of the SAC.

NGU has the desperation factor working in their favor, but the matchups favor Carson-Newman.

Carson-Newman 28 North Greenville 20

Limestone (3-4, 2-2) at Newberry (4-3, 2-1) 4:00

Every game is a must win this late in the season, and that is what makes the game of college football so special. Both teams need this game in order to keep hopes alive. For Newberry, last week’s loss was devastating for their hopes to repeat as SAC champs and make a third straight trip to the playoffs. But they remain alive in both races, if they can win the remainder of their games. Limestone still has a chance at their first winning season in program history, but they have to win the final three games to pull it off.

Newberry has had some problems on offense but the defense has been improving as the season has progressed. The Wolves lead the SAC in total yards allowed per game with just 305 and passing yards allowed per game. Limestone has some weapons on offense, but they have been inconsistent since the start of the year and with Newberry playing with their backs to the wall, I don’t think their defense is going to allow much on Saturday.

The critical thing for the Wolves to insure victory is get the offense working more consistently.

Newberry 24 Limestone 14

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  1. Kit-Carson's Avatar
    I always enjoy your posts. Thanks.
  2. Larold's Avatar
    I'm a dyed in the wool GSC-er, but I look forward to your blogs.
  3. Chuck Bitner's Avatar