Chuck Bitner

SAC Week 9 Preview

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In case you missed it – and what’s wrong with you if you did?? – the first round of regional rankings was released on Monday. The regional rankings determine the 28 teams that will be invited to the Division II Football Championship tournament. Seven teams from each region will make the cut. The rankings will be updated for the next two Mondays and the tournament field will be announced on Sunday, November 12. For more background on the rankings and the selection process, you can read the Regional Rankings Projections blog posted on Sunday evening.

My projections were not too far off from reality. I had Virginia State and Bowie State ranked ahead of West Alabama based on record and OWP but the Tigers do have an impressive resume and the differences in OWP were pretty small, so I don’t have any objections to their placement. Most importantly for the SAC, Wingate has the #1 ranking. Even though it doesn’t mean much right now, it is still a huge accomplishment and some well deserved recognition for the Bulldogs. If Wingate does manage to win the final three games to complete an undefeated season, they should hold on to the top spot. That’s not guaranteed because Virginia State is also unbeaten against Division II and if they also (hypothetically) run the table, both teams would be 10-0 against D2 and projected OWP as of now would be pretty close. So we just have to let it play out and see what happens.

As nice as the recognition is, Wingate can’t afford to get wrapped up in rankings. Newberry is still a very talented team. Limestone and Tusculum have both pulled off upsets this year and are more than capable of doing it again. The good thing for Wingate is that their remaining opponents are all .500 or better in Division II competition, so the Bulldogs’ OWP will stay fairly strong and mayeven improve as more games are played.

Carson-Newman fell out of the picture by suffering their third D2 loss of the season and that was good news for Catawba fans. Carson-Newman held a critical head to head advantage over Catawba, but it’s not enough to overcome the win-loss record, which helped propel the Indians into contention. As things stand today, they would lose the 7th position to Albany State via the earned access rule, but let’s not lose our minds over that just yet. There is still a lot of football to play and hopefully the SIAC will either have a team in the top 7 on merit, or will not be in the picture at all.

Harlon Hill Candidates
As the season winds down, it will soon be time to consider candidates for the Harlon Hill Trophy. Like the championship rankings, the Harlon Hill voting is regionalized. Each team can nominate one candidate and the voting will occur within regions to announce the initial pool of candidates. Another round will cut the list to eight finalists (two from each region.) The winner will then be announced at the end of the season.

Who are the most viable candidates from the SAC?

To be blunt, no one in the SAC has a realistic shot. It takes gaudy stats to get the votes needed and no one in the league has impressive enough numbers. Quarterbacks and running backs are always going to be the front runners but we don’t have any that stand out from the crowd far enough to be a contender. The two best candidates from the SAC are…

WR Keshaun Taylor (Mars Hill) – 56 catches, 1083 yards, 8TD. Taylor leads the SAC in total receptions, receptions per game, total yards and yards per game. His 20.4 yards per catch average is staggering for a player with more than 50 receptions. He is 3rd in the nation in receiving yards per game.

RB Lawrence Pittman (Wingate) – 178 carries, 849 yards, 9 TD. 121.3 yards per game, 4.7 yards per carry. Pittman has performed very well this season and has put up good numbers even though he splits reps with equally talented teammate Blake Hayes. He has name recognition and a great reputation so I expect him to be a candidate but the stats probably aren’t eye catching enough to be a finalist.

SR2’s most viable candidates right now are Bowie State QB Amir Hall and Virginia State RB Trenton Cannon. As deep as the GSC is, there isn’t anyone with the standout stats needed to make a serious run at the Harlon Hill Trophy.

Ranking the SAC

1. Wingate – The Bulldogs are well out front in the conference race. Every other team in the SAC has at least two conference losses. Wingate could lose a game and still win the SAC title without the aid of tie breakers. But closing strong will not be easy. Newberry is still a talented team, Limestone is very good at punching above their weight and when Tusculum shows up ready to play, they’re a good team. I have to think all three will be ready to give Wingate their best shot.

2. Catawba – The Indians bounced back from the heartbreaking loss to Wingate with a solid road performance at Tusculum. They need too much help to win the SAC, but as long as they keep winning they’ll be in position for the playoffs. None of the remaining three games will be easy but the last two are at home.

3. Carson-Newman – the loss to North Greenville dropped the Eagles from playoff contention. They struggled to get the running game going last week and that could be trouble with two tough run defenses coming up next.

4. Limestone – a couple of weeks ago I feared that Limestone was in for a rough second half of the season. But after dropping back to back games to Carson-Newman and LR, they rebounded in a big way with a another dramatic win. They did what they always do, which is fight to the last play and never give up on each other. They rallied, tied Newberry and made plays down the stretch to win the game. All four of their wins were decided on the last play of the game.

5. Tusculum – A see-saw season of ups and downs continues for Tusculum. After a big OT win at Newberry, they returned home and were soundly beaten by Catawba. This is how it’s gone for the Pioneers this year. When they’re at their best, they’re a formidable team. But you can’t count on that happening every week.

6. Newberry – The Wolves’ SAC title defense slipped away in the second half last week. They held a 17-0 lead at halftime but couldn’t hold off Limestone. When Nick Smith’s field goal broke the tie with only seconds remaining, Newberry’s championship and post season aspirations were dashed. A win over Wingate on Saturday night won’t make a difference in the standings but it would right some wrongs for the Wolves.

7. Lenoir-Rhyne – The bye week came at a good time for LR. They went into it a high note after the lopsided win at Limestone. They play an ailing UNCP team this weekend, giving them a chance to keep building momentum leading into the final two against Carson-Newman and Catawba.

8. Mars Hill – The Lions’ defense was unable to take advantage of Wingate starting an inexperienced QB last week. It was more of the same old. They made some plays on offense, but couldn’t come up with enough stops on D. They’ve now lost five in a row, but they do have an off week before finishing with UNCP and Newberry.

Tusculum (4-4, 2-3) at Carson-Newman (5-3, 3-2) 1:00
The battle for Eastern Tennessee comes to Mossy Creek on Saturday and both teams are licking some wounds. Both lost at home last week and both offenses took some lumps. Carson-Newman couldn’t run the ball and Tusculum couldn’t do much of anything against Catawba’s defense. Tusculum won this matchup a year ago and Carson-Newman definitely does not want to lose to their in-state rival two years in a row.

Tusculum is a bit of an enigma. When they show up ready to play, they’re capable of big things. But they’ve had an equal number of occurrences when they look like they just didn’t show up at all. NGU showed last week that Carson-Newman’s run game can be stopped. Tusculum has been inconsistent against the run, but they have done well at times. They have good linebackers that get the ball quickly and that is critical against a scheme like C-N’s.

Offensively, the Pioneers will have a chance if Alex Ogle has a good day. Carson-Newman is extremely difficult to run against, but that’s not really Tusculum’s forte anyway. The Pioneers have a good passing attack on most days and if Saturday is one of those days, this will be a close game.

I think this will be a good game, but Tusculum is too inconsistent to pick for the win.

Carson-Newman 28 Tusculum 21

Catawba (6-2, 2-2) at Limestone (4-4, 3-2) 1:00
A year ago, Limestone rolled into Salisbury on a rainy day and took advantage of Catawba turnovers and miscues to steal a 6-0 victory. The Saints may not get as much of an assist from the weather this week, but they can be tough to beat at the Reservation. They play with enthusiasm and confidence, and nothing breeds confidence like success. Taking a win from Newberry with a big second half will certainly do a lot for the confidence of this young program.

Limestone made a change at quarterback last week. DJ Phillips came on in relief in the previous game, which was a 35-7 loss to Lenoir-Rhyne. Philllips played well enough to earn a shot at starting at Newberry. He completed less than 50% of his passes, but made of the most of his completions with a program record 400 passing yards. He has two deadly weapons at receiver in Vyncent Smith and D’Anta Fleming. Even if they’re inconsistent, a few deep ball home runs could be enough to keep them in it. Catawba has one of the better defenses in SR2, but they have given up big plays from time to time. That will be the key in this game. If Catawba can minimize the deep balls and force turnovers (which have plagued Limestone recently) they should be okay. But if Fleming and Smith both have more than 100 yards receiving, it could be a battle.

I’m going with Catawba on the road because I think they are queued up to finish strong and make a push for the playoffs, but a Limestone upset would not be shocking.

Catawba 28 Limestone 21

Lenoir-Rhyne (3-4, 2-3) at UNC Pembroke 4:00
LR has to win the final three games to have a winning season, and while I don’t see that happening, they do have a chance to start off with a win at Pembroke. The Bears win when they establish the run. It’s that simple. I still don’t have enough confidence in their passing game to carry the load, but when they get the running game going, it sets up the pass as a fine compliment.

Some teams have had success running the ball against Pembroke, but for the most part, the Braves are fairly tough against the run. Their defense really isn’t bad. The biggest problem they have is that the offense just hasn’t been able to provide enough support. But this may be the week that the Braves can do just enough to stay in the game. LR isn’t very explosive on offense so if UNCP can be tough against the run, I think they can keep this low scoring and give themselves a chance.

This is a winnable game for Lenoir-Rhyne, but the Bears have been total unpredictable this year. I have a feeling UNCP is due for a win and it is their homecoming, but I’ll give a slight edge to Lenoir-Rhyne coming out of the bye week.

Lenoir-Rhyne 20 UNC Pembroke 17

Newberry (4-4, 2-2) at #16 Wingate (7-0, 4-0) 6:00

A year ago, the SAC championship came down to these two meeting in the last week of the regular season at Newberry. The Wolves came from behind in the fourth quarter to win the game and complete and undefeated conference schedule. This year, Wingate is the team with a chance to run the table in the SAC and position themselves for the post season.

On paper, Wingate is the better team. But I can’t think of a better way for Newberry to try to salvage a disappointing season than to knock off the unbeaten Bulldogs. Newberry’s path to victory is through a strong defensive effort up front. The Wolves were outplayed by Limestone last week, and even though they were lit up for 400 passing yards, they buried the running game of their opponent for the third week in a row. If they can stand up to Wingate’s rushing attack and keep the game low scoring they can have a chance. But Wingate is deceptively strong in the passing game as well. They are a run first offense, but they have playmakers at the receiver position and quarterbacks that don’t make mistakes. James Whitaker is expected to be back this week for Wingate, which is a boost for the offense even though his relief played extremely well at Mars Hill. You want your most experienced leader in the huddle in big games so don’t underestimate the importance of his return.

Additionally, Wingate’s defense is really good. Better than the statistics show, in my opinion. They are really good at getting off the field in critical situations, which is what won the Catawba game. Newbery is still struggling for an identity on offense and I just don’t this being the weekend that it all comes together for them.

The last time Wingate was at home, they were underwhelming against an inferior team. They were one dropped pass away from losing that one. But I think that got their attention as they have been impressive since then. There is too much at stake for them be anything other than 100% focused and prepared.

Wingate 27 Newberry 17

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