Chuck Bitner

SAC Playoff preview and Week 11 recap

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Nothing worked out the way I thought it would last week. Not on the field and not in the bracket. The biggest news of the final game day in 2017 was Tusculum’s upset of previously undefeated Wingate. The Pioneers played inspired football from start to finish and had a perfect game plan on both sides of the ball. They were able to play to their strengths and took advantage of a quick start to stun Wingate early and never let them recover.

Several things stood out in that game. One was the outstanding line play from Tusculum. Wingate usually controls the line of scrimmage but Tusculum totally turned the tables on them. The Bulldogs were not able to get the running game going. The duo of Lawrence Pittman and Blake Hayes combined for just 71 yards. QB Dylan Williams (once again filling in for starter James Whitaker) led the team with 77 rushing yards. Williams was frequently pressured (again owing the Tusculum’s work at the line of scrimmage) and earned most of his rushing yards improvising on broken down passing plays.

The Pioneers were equally effective on the offensive side of the line. They have considerable size in the line, and they played as impressively as they looked. Tusculum hasn’t had the most explosive rushing attack this year, but they seemed to pop some big plays on the ground when Wingate least expected it. Tommy Brown, who had less than 100 rushing yards for the season, was an unexpected hero, carrying 20 times for 101 yards.

Wingate had been in some tough spots during the season and each time they responded. They won close games in the fourth quarter and they finished in the fourth quarter. But on Saturday, none of that happened. They didn’t have their best stuff and they definitely did not have the same emotional intensity. They had many opportunities to make the plays they needed to get back in the game, but they just couldn’t do it.

The loss was surprising, but Tusculum definitely earned it. They executed much better than Wingate and frankly, played like they wanted it more. I didn’t expect that to happen to Wingate with an undefeated season on the line, but it just goes to show how hard it is to make it through a season unbeaten. It’s hard to bring your absolute best ten weeks in row and unfortunately for Wingate, they weren’t able to do it. Hopefully it means they’ll come back this week with a sharper focus and a renewed emotional spirit. For Tusculum, it was a fantastic end to a season that showed a lot of promise for the future under Jerry Odom’s leadership.

That result wasn’t the only surprising thing that happened. Newberry put in one of the most amazing team performances of the year in shutting out Mars Hill 28-0. The Wolves’ defense held the SAC’s top passing offense to just 63 passing yards. Mars Hill had only 8 pass completions, but tossed 6 interceptions. Incredible. Offensively, the Wolves were without both quarterbacks (Nick Jones and Greg Ruff) and went with a rotation of running backs and receivers at the quarterback position. Seven different players took a snap from scrimmage. It wasn’t always pretty but the Wolves managed to make it work. They did not complete a single forward pass but they ran for 385 yards.

I wonder what it was like for Todd Knight and staff to draw up the game plan. It must have been a mixture of challenging, fun, creative and downright frightening. It’s unbelievable that they were able to pull all that together and win the game the way they did. It’s a huge credit to Newberry’s team to come together and play like that at the end of a difficult season. On the flipside, Mars Hill has some soul searching to do. While Newberry’s performance was one of the most remarkable of the year in the SAC, Mars Hill’s performance was easily the worst. Not a good look for the season finale.

Carson-Newman closed out their year with a thoroughly dominant win over UNCP. It wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs, but they closed the year on a high and will enter the offseason as my early pick to win the SAC in 2018.

For the second week in a row, Lenoir-Rhyne found ways to battle to the end with a better team. They didn’t have the offense to threaten for a win, but they went down to the last play with a team that finished 9-2 and that didn’t happen much last year.

Playoff Selections

Now let’s get back to the news of the week which is the announcement of the Division II Championship field. Wingate’s loss predictably dropped them from first to third. The Bulldogs will host a round one game and if victorious, would then play on the road in round two. What I did not expect was Catawba’s fall from sixth to unranked. The Indians won their final game over Lenoir-Rhyne and seemed a near lock for the post season. I’ll admit was a stunned when the field was announced and I did not see Catawba in the bracket.

In an effort to figure this out, I pulled together the final records and weighted OWP that was published by the NCAA. I did this for the ten teams that were in contention in SR2.

The first four teams are right where they belong based on record and OWP. After the top four, there are a pair of two loss teams and four three loss teams. Tuskegee was known to be a big variable. They won the SIAC championship over an average Fort Valley State team, but finishing with just 7 D2 wins hurt their cause. Although point spreads are not part of the defined selection criteria, they did lose 61-0 to SR1 playoff team Findlay, which may have also made them look unworthy. So while I predicted that they would make the field, I wasn’t shocked that they didn’t.

Tuskegee not making it would have seemingly locked Catawba in, but the committee selected three GSC teams for positions 5, 6, and 7. I believe the discussion was probably driven by what to do with UWF and UWG. I think the committee felt that West Georgia should be in. They are 8-3, have the highest OWP among ranked teams and won five games over teams that finished .500 or better. Those are deserving credentials. But if the committee put them in, they had to consider West Florida, who had the same number of losses (3) and won head to head against West Georgia. But you can’t put both those teams in and exclude Delta State, who also is a three loss team and beat BOTH West Georgia and West Florida.

So Catawba paid the price for the web of head to head entanglements in the GSC. I understand where the committee went with the selections and how they got there. Frankly, it’s not easy to get the right teams every year. But all that said, Catawba has every right and every reason to feel like they got screwed. They did. I think they should have been in and West Georgia should have been dropped. But alas, we must move on.

Here is a look at the round one meeting between Wingate and West Florida.

West Florida team profile

2017 Schedule
(W) Sept. 2 at Missouri S&T 20-16
(CANCELLED) Sept. 9 v. Midwestern State
(W) Sept. 16 v. Chowan 51-23
(L) Sept. 23 v. Valdosta State 30-19
(W) Sept. 30 at Florida Tech 23-21
(W) Oct. 6 v. Mississippi College 28-14
(L) Oct. 14 v. Delta State 28-25
(W) Oct. 21 at Shorter 42-29
(L) Oct. 28 at West Alabama 35-18
(W) Nov. 4 v. North Alabama 30-7
(W) Nov. 11 at West Georgia 34-29

2017 Roster
2017 Statistics
2017 Coaching Staff

Five players to watch
#13 QB Mike Beaudry 245 passing yards per game, 20 TD, 7 INT, 54.55% completion percentage
#1 PK Austin Williams 21-28 FG, 92 total points
#18 LB Reggie Barnes 76 TT, 31 solo, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks
#30 DL John Williamson 45 TT, 24 solo, 10 TFL, 8 sacks, 12 QB hurry, 2 FF
#5 DB Marvin Conley 74 TT, 47 solo, 3 INT, 138 INT return yards, 5 QB hurry

About West Florida

West Florida earned the distinction of being the youngest program to earn a bid to the NCAA Division II football championship. The West Florida program is only it’s second year of competition and broke the previous record of years before first playoff appearance which had been held by UNC Pembroke at three. The two programs have something in common – both were started from the ground up by head coach Pete Shinnick.

Shinnick was announced as the first head coach at UWF in 2014, ahead of the program’s inaugural season of 2016. The Argonauts went 5-6 last year and improved to 7-3 this year. For some perspective on how far the program has come in one calendar year, consider this…in each of the last two seasons, they closed the campaign against North Alabama and West Georgia. A year ago they lost to UNA 51-3 and lost to West Georgia 69-0. This year, they beat both teams.

While I wasn’t thrilled to see West Florida sneak up from 10th in the regional rankings to take a spot that I felt Catawba had earned, I do think they are a very good football team. They lost three games to Valdosta State, Delta State and West Alabama. There was a very interesting commonality in all three losses. In all three games, the Argos converted four field goals. Four. Many of which were in the red zone. That means they were putting themselves in position to win those games, they just couldn’t cash in with touchdowns often enough. With a slightly better red zone TD percentage, the Argos could have possibly won the GSC championship.

West Florida isn’t terribly explosive on offense but they do have a productive passing game, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Beaudry. Beaudry was the first player signed to a commitment at UWF, but missed last season due to injury. At 6’5” 240, he is a D2 quarterback in a D1 body. He’s had a very good season, averaging 245 passing yards per game and has 20 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Much like Wingate, the Argos have a host of receivers that have contributed. Antoine Griffin (41 catches, 566 yards, 2 TD) has been the primary playmaker, but is one of six Argos with more than 15 receptions. The running game hasn’t been great for the Argos, but they do have a lot of players they like to use in different packages, which could cause some problems for Wingate in much the same way that Tusculum’s modest running game did.

The Argos’ defense is almost a mirror of Wingate’s. They are very strong against the run, allowing only 130 yards per game and 3.4 yards per rush. Even the better teams they played like Delta State and West Georgia really struggled to establish the run. They aren’t as good against the pass, allowing 220 yards per game, but 10 yards per completion is not a bad number. Defensive lineman John Williamson was the only Argo defender to be named to the GSC first or second team defense.

Wingate team profile

2017 Schedule
(W) Sept. 2 at Johnson C. Smith 38-18
(W) Sept. 9 at Fayetteville State 31-21
(W) Sept. 16 v. Carson-Newman 31-27
(W) Sept. 23 at Lenoir-Rhyne 22-14
(W) Oct. 7 v. UNP Pembroke 31-28
(W) Oct. 14 at Catawba 27-24
(W) Oct. 21 at Mars Hill 42-21
(W) Oct. 28 v. Newberry 44-20
(W) Nov. 4 v. Limestone 44-20
(L) Nov. 11 at Tusculum 25-17

2017 Roster
2017 Statistics
2017 Coaching Staff

Five Players to Watch
#23 RB Lawrence Pittman 1147 total rushing yards, 114.7 per game, 4.7ypc, 11TD
#33 RB Blake Hayes 730 total rushing yards, 81.1 per game, 5.4ypc, 5 TD
#11 WR BJ Muckelvene 235 rushing yards, 385 receiving yards, 624 return yards, 8TDs
#10 Robbie Wallace 95 TT, 42 solo, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 6 BU, 4 QBh
#2 LB Zack Singleton 69 TT, 32 solo, 8 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 3BU

About Wingate

Last week’s loss at Tusculum spoiled an undefeated season, but the Bulldogs are still a 9 win team and a conference champion. They accomplished that by being a very well-rounded team with few weaknesses and a bevy of intangibles. On most days, they grind out wins by controlling the line of scrimmage with an offensive line that is loaded with size and experience. They block for two of the toughest and most physical running backs you’ll find in Division II. Lawrence Pittman (114 ypg) led the conference in rushing and was recently named SAC offensive player of the year. Teammate Blake Hayes, every bit as talented, averages more yards per carry (5.4). The Bulldogs started the year with sophomore James Whitaker at quarterback, but he has played only once in the last four games and it appears Wingate may be going with redshirt junior Dylan Williams the rest of the way. Williams has played well, but the Bulldogs definitely struggled with the passing game in the loss to Tusculum last week.

The Bulldogs normally rely on a handful of receivers to contribute. Jay Hood leads the team in total receptions and receiving touchdowns, but six different Bulldogs have hauled in at least 15 catches.

Defensively, the Bulldogs are solid up front and very difficult to run against. They have a solid rotation of bodies up front that allow just over 100 yards per game on the ground. They are deep in the D line and very strong at linebacker. They have been vulnerable in the passing game and actually finished the regular season ranked last in the SAC in passing yards allowed per game. That is in part because they’ve forced some teams to be one dimensional, but passing offenses like Catawba, Mars Hill and Limestone had a lot of success moving the ball in the air. However, the Bulldogs did lead the SAC with 14 interceptions.

How they match up

The two teams look pretty even. Wingate will test West Florida’s run defense more than any other team they’ve faced, but the Argos do look well equipped to hold up to the run. When the Bulldogs go to the air, they need to be better in pass protection than they were a week ago and need to give Dylan Williams more high percentage pass plays. They had a really hard time hitting pass plays beyond the sticks. I’d really like to see some rocket screens to get the ball to BJ Muckelvene (easily the most dangerous player on the field) in open space. More short yardage plays underneath the sticks to JT Stokes and Adam Riley might be a good way to ignite the passing game as well.

West Florida’s path to victory is for Beaudry to have a big day, which he is certainly capable of. The Argos aren’t going to run the ball that well, but it is possible to rack up passing yardage against Wingate. The Bulldogs do have a tendency to make drive-killing plays in crucial situations but if the Argos can play clean football, I think they match up well enough to move the ball.

The pick

For Wingate, a lot depends on their mental state. Last week’s loss was unexpected and a bit jarring. If they’ve moved on from it, and they will have a very competitive outing and will have a chance to win. If they have any hang over from it, they’ll have no chance. But they’re coming into the playoffs a little but wounded. Conversely, West Florida didn’t even expect to be here. They’re coming off the two biggest wins in their brief history and the whole program is flying high.

I think Wingate will bring their best, but I believe this is a very difficult match up for them. West Florida looks like they have the run defense to keep Wingate contained and I’m not sure they Bulldogs have the enough ability pass themselves out of trouble. West Florida has the passing offense to consistently move the sticks and although settling for field goals cost them against DSU, Valdosta and West Alabama, field goal drives could be big in this game.

My heart wants to pick the Bulldogs and definitely want to see their season continue, but I do think West Florida is a tough draw and a dangerous team.

West Florida 27 Wingate 24

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2017 SAC Football Photos

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Updated 11-16-2017 at 08:22 PM by Chuck Bitner

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  1. Cat U Fan's Avatar
    I heard that the region selection committee chose Catawba the 6th seed but was overruled by the national committee who makes the final choice and is headed by the AD from UWG. It doesn't prove that politics were involved, but it sure smells like it with 4 GSC members, 1 SAC member, and 0 from the SIAC being seeded. It may be akin to D1 hoops, where some feel unjustly omitted, but it raises suspicion. Regardless, there are 7 very good teams in the region and it should make for a good playoff.
  2. Chuck Bitner's Avatar
    As I understand it, the regional committees recommend the rankings for their regiona but the national committee makes the final calls. It is true that West Georgia AD Daryl Dickey is one of the eight members of the national committee.
  3. Cat U Fan's Avatar
    Oh, well, it is what it is. Are you going to the game @ Wingnut? I wonder what the Bulldogs' mentality will be having given up an unbeaten season, top seed, and first-round bye by losing to a Tusculum team that looked awful the previous two games. I'm also curious as to how you would compare the SAC with the PSAC (talent, atmosphere, etc.), having covered both. Thanks for the great coverage this year.
  4. Chuck Bitner's Avatar
    I'll be there. I mentioned in this blog that I think Wingate's mental state will be a huge factor in this game. I think Reich is an excellent coach and will manage the recovery from last week, but we'll see. I would love to what their practices are like this week. I have a few ideas for offseason blogs to give some perspective on how SAC comapres to other conferencs I've seen up close frequently. Beyond the PSAC, I've seen a lot of NE10, MEC, CIAA and even a number of GLIAC, GSC and MIAA teams.
  5. Cat U Fan's Avatar
    I'd be interested to read your perspective. I've been insulated for many decades, seeing schools from other conferences only when they've played my school or during the playoffs on TV.
  6. UWFDad95's Avatar
    Thank you for adding this to the GSC post! I enjoyed the in depth review..