Chuck Bitner

SAC Week 11 Preview

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With only one week left in the regular season, the SAC is still in position to have a major presence in the playoffs. Wingate held onto the number one ranking in Super Region 2 for the third straight week, while Catawba hung onto sixth place (good enough for a post season invitation) and Carson-Newman moved up two spots. As it stands today, The Eagles would not make the field, but we still have a week to play and with just a little bit of help, Carson-Newman could find themselves playing again next Saturday. Here is a look at the current top 10 and who they face this week.

(All records referenced are D2 records only)

1. Wingate (9-0) at Tusculum (4-5)
The Bulldogs are in the playoffs regardless of the outcome at Tusculum. A loss could cost them anywhere from two to four positions in the rankings but they’re safe no matter what happens. With a win, I expect them to hold on to the top ranking and secure the first round bye.

2. West Alabama (8-1) v. North Greenville (4-4)
West Alabama should be safe as well, but a loss would mean the difference between hosting and playing on the road, depending on other outcomes. North Greenville could be a dangerous team. The Crusaders are a tougher team than their record would indicate, as Delta State found out last week.

3. Virginia State (8-0) v. Fayetteville State (6-4) – CIAA Championship Game
VSU should be heavily favored in the CIAA championship, but Fayetteville State has won five in a row. An upset by the Broncos would drop VSU a spot or two, and could cost them a home game, but they should be in win or lose. FSU has too far to go to get into the picture.

4. West Georgia (8-2) v. West Florida (6-3)
West Georgia’s weighted opponent winning percentage is very high, so they might be able to absorb a loss and still make it, but that is not a given. I think they would still be safe, but Sunday afternoon will be nerve wracking if they take a loss to West Florida.

5. Bowie State (9-1) Idle
The Bulldogs’ only loss is to Virginia State, which kept them from winning the CIAA north division. That means they are idle this week, and just waiting for the final rankings to see who and where they will play next week. They’re in.

6. Catawba (7-2) v. Lenoir-Rhyne (3-6)
Catawba is in with a win, but probably out if they lose. They could still make it, but would need some other outcomes to work in their favor. They need to win to secure their spot.

7. Delta State (7-3) v. Florida Tech (4-4)
Delta State is in the danger zone. If they lose, their out for sure. Even with a win, they could be vulnerable if all the teams ahead of them stay ahead of them. The SIAC champ could take their 7th spot via earned access.

8. Carson-Newman (6-3) v. UNCP (2-7)
Carson-Newman’s best path in is for the two teams immediately ahead of them to lose. If that happens, and the Eagles beat UNCP, I like their chances. It could happen for them even if only one team ahead of them loses, but 7th won’t not be good enough if the SIAC champ lands in 8th.

9. Tuskegee (6-2) at Fort Valley State (5-4) – SIAC Championship Game
If Tuskegee wins and a couple of teams immediately ahead of them lose, they will probably make it with or maybe even without earned access. All they have to do is move up one spot to get the EA bid and I think a win on Saturday may be enough to do that. Although I don’t like EA, I do think Tuskegee is a good team. Their FCS wins don’t count, but they are 8-2 overall. A win by Fort Valley State would probably mean that the SIAC would not be represented in the playoffs.

10. West Florida (6-3) at West Georgia (8-2)
West Florida has too far to go to have a realistic shot but having head to head over West Georgia would be a big asset. They would still need a lot of help to have a chance.

What would be best for the SAC?
-Wingate wins and stays #1
-Catawba wins and stays #6. I don’t see many opportunities to move up even if there is a loss or two ahead of them.
-Carson-Newman wins, Delta State and Tuskegee lose. That could be enough for C-N to move up to 7th and be safe from being pipped by earned access.
In that scenario, the SAC gets three teams in at seeds 1, 6 and 7. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Ranking the SAC

Wingate: The Bulldogs won the outright conference championship with a week to spare. Not a small accomplishment in an eight team league. Beyond that, they really seem to be peaking at the right time. Their best football may still be ahead of them, which is a very exciting prospect. I love the way they responded in a tight battle against Limestone last week.

Carson-Newman: Catawba has the better record, but the Eagles do have the head to head and may be playing better right now. The defense is playing as well as it has all year and may be the best in the SAC right now. The running game suffered a bit when Antonio Wimbush was lost for the season, but has really come up big in recent weeks.

Catawba: The Indians have won three in a row since losing to Wingate on the last play of the game, but the last two were major struggles. They’re still in a very good position, but it feels like their best football may have been early in the season. I’m hoping I’m wrong about that.

Limestone: The Saints’ season came to an end last Saturday and although they finished at 4-6 overall and 3-4 in league play, I think it was a heck of year and I’m impressed with the program. They won the winnable games on the schedule and punched above their weight at times against the good teams.

Tusculum: The Pioneers were off last week, giving them extra time to prepare their best shot for undefeated Wingate. How great would it be to end their season at home with a huge upset over the top team in SR2?

Newbery: It’s been a tough year for the Wolves to say the least, but they certainly haven’t rolled over. They showed a lot of pride and a lot of fight last week. They’re going to finish with a losing record, which was not expected but a win at home on Saturday would be a good way to end for a team that experienced a lot of growing pains.

Mars Hill: Finally. The Lions got back in the win column with a shootout victory over UNCP last Saturday in the home finale. It was a good win for a team that had a couple of near misses during the five game losing streak. They finish up at Newberry, so there is a chance to end their year with back to back wins.

Lenoir-Rhyne: The Bears managed to score 28 points last week (tied for second most points scored this year) but the offense continued to struggle. The Bears had only two drives that went more than 30 yards and one of those was on the strength of an 86 yard run.

Final Week

It's the final week of the season already. The SAC will carry on, most likely two teams in the playoffs, but remember that for most of the players suiting up Saturday, this is the last chance for the season. For most of the seniors, it is final time they will get play organized football. I hope every one of them will have a chance to make it count and make one more lasting memory of their time spent playing the game.

UNCP (2-7) at Carson-Newman (7-3, 5-2) 1:00
Carson-Newman is the only team to have completed their conference schedule and will close with a home game against UNCP. The Braves having a scheduling alliance with the SAC but games against them do not count in the conference standings, so the Eagles have already locked down second place. They may tie on record with Catawba, but have the head to head win.

UNCP had a big day offensively last week, which they desperately needed, but that was against a Mars Hill defense had has been at the bottom of the stat sheets for most of the year. The Braves will find things much more difficult this week in eastern Tennessee. Carson-Newman is the only defense in the SAC allowing less than 300 total yards per game (292). They allow just a snitch over 100 yards on the ground, which is bad news for a UNCP team that has only 762 rushing yards for the year.

The Braves’ defense is solid, but on most days they don’t get enough support from the offense. They are good against the run, which is obviously a positive when going against Carson-Newman. I could see this being a defensive battle for a half, but Carson-Newman has the ability wear down UNCP. The Braves don’t have enough versatility to put up points against the Eagles’ defense.

Carson-Newman 35 UNCP 17

Mars Hill (3-6, 2-4) at Newberry (4-6, 2-4) 1:00
This is the only game of the week involving two teams with nothing to play for but passion, pride and fun…and I’ll be damned if those aren’t the best reasons to play the game in the first place. I love the drama and tension of playoffs and championship football, but what’s more fun that two teams just playing for a win and nothing else. There’s no pressure, there’s no drama, there’s really nothing at stake that anyone outside the two locker rooms cares about. And that means they’re playing for themselves and their teammates. That is what sports is all about and that is why this will probably be the best game of the week in the SAC.

Mars Hill just ended a long losing streak last week and that is what Newberry is now trying to do. The Wolves have lost their last four – all conference games. But its not like they failed to show up. They lost on the last play to both Tusculum and Limestone, and took Catawba down to last drive as well. They haven’t packed it in and that makes me think they will have had a good week of practice and will come our ready to play on Saturday.

Mars Hill definitely has the better offense. They’ve moved the ball well all season, even during their losing streak. They have one of the best playmakers in the conference in receiver Keshaun Taylor, who went off with big day last week, earning SAC player of the week honors. The Lions’ D hasn’t been very good for most of this year, and that was a problem against a lackluster UNCP offense. The good news for them is the Newberry is still a little bit lost on offense. They don’t really have an identity and I think that will be the difference. I can see this playing out like last week’s game at Mars Hill. Newberry should have one of their better offensive performances, but Mars Hill should be able to outlast them.

Mars Hill 38 Newbery 37

#13 Wingate (9-0, 6-0) at Tusculum (4-5, 2-4) 1:30
When you’re undefeated and cruising towards the post-season, you get everyone’s best shot. That’s what Wingate can expect this weekend at Tusculum. It’s senior day, the season final and a shot for the Pioneers to finish with a .500 record. Not to mention a chance to take down an unbeaten team and newly crowned conference champ.

When Tusculum plays their best, they’re pretty good. The problem is that they’ve been frustratingly inconsistent. They earned nice wins over UNCP, Newberry and Mars Hill, but left wins on the field at North Greenville and Limestone and failed to show up against Lenoir-Rhyne and Carson-Newman. So what Pioneer team is taking the field on Saturday? I can’t say exactly, but they’ve had to weeks to prepare and if they bring their A game, this can be a battle.

Wingate would be right at home with that. It’s not like they’ve cruised to 9-0. They’ve worked for it and earned it. They know how to finish in the second half and they win close games. Tusculum’s path to an upset is through the passing game. They don’t have a super strong running game and Wingate is tough against the run anyway, so I expect a pass-heavy game plan. If QB Alex Ogle gets hot, there could be opportunity for success against a pass defense that allows 240 yards per game (second worst in the SAC). However, Wingate leads the league in interceptions and Tusculum has had giveaway problems at times this year.

I think Tusculum has it in them to keep this close for a while, but Wingate is so focused on the task at hand. They were tight spot at half time each of the last two weeks and had the perfect response coming out of the locker room. That could happen again this week. I like their chances to get the running game going and they’re getting outstanding quarterback play no matter who is under center.

I don’t think they’ll get caught looking ahead. They already have the SAC trophy but an undefeated season and #1 seed in the playoffs is still in front of them and all they have to do to earn both is win at Tusculum.

Wingate 35 Tusculum 17

Lenoir-Rhyne (3-6, 2-4) at Catawba (8-2, 4-2) 1:30
As was the case last week, this is a playoff game for Catawba. If they win, their season will go on for another week. If they lose, they’re probably done for the year. I’d like to think that is all that is needed for them to show up with their best, but we’ll see. Newberry played inspired football last week, but Catawba didn’t really look like a team competing for a playoff spot. They were a little flat emotionally and didn’t seem to play with a sense of urgency. They need to find that this week to make sure they win and set themselves up to compete in the post season.

Catawba’s defense played well last week although they did struggle to get off the field at times. The offense was disappointing and they need to bounce back against an LR defense that has played well at times this year.

Ultimately, I see this potentially playing out like last week’s game. LR’s offense is still not very good and shouldn’t be a consistent threat against a solid Catawba D. But the Indians’ offense hasn’t been as good as it was early in the season. Defensively, LR is comparable to Newberry and the Wolves’ D had a good last week.

I think Catawba wins this game no matter how it plays out, but they need to go into the playoffs feeling like they’re playing good football. If they show up with a playoff mentality, I think they’ll win comfortably. If not, they’re going to be in trouble.

LR’s lack of offense should create some opportunities for Catawba to get their own offense going.

Catawba 34 Lenoir-Rhyne 14

That’s it for the regular season. Look for a post on Sunday projecting the playoff field.

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Updated 11-10-2017 at 07:11 PM by Chuck Bitner

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