ROCK HILL, S.C. – Carson-Newman is the preseason number one for the South Atlantic Conference the league's annual poll of its coaches.
The Eagles edged out defending SAC champion Lenoir-Rhyne, whom C-N defeated twice last year - 47-23 in the regular season and then 38-35 in the second round of the NCAA playoffs. The Eagles took the top spot by four votes, 58-54. C-N and L-R split the eight first place votes 4-4.
"It doesn't mean a hill of beans at this point," head coach Ken Sparks said. "If you get too high or too low over some preseason poll, there's something not right with your brain."
Wingate and Mars Hill round out the top four. Carson-Newman was picked fifth in last year's preseason poll before finishing the year in a tie for second in the SAC with a first round bye as the two-seed for Super Region II in the NCAA playoffs.
The Eagles return 19 starters and have three preseason All-Americans in running back Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.), kicker Curt Duncan (Morristown, Tenn.) and offensive tackle Alex Taylor (Bristol, Tenn.).
"I think our kids are determined to do the very best we can," Sparks said. "That's the poll I'm interested in – the Lord being able to tell us that 'you did the very best you could to develop yourself to be everything I created you to be.' Now if we pass that poll, then I'm in."
The Eagles averaged a nation's best 378 yards per game last year on the ground and scored 52 rushing touchdowns – more than any school in any division – last season. Carson-Newman was held under 300 yards rushing just twice last season and the Eagles toted the ball for more than 350 yards in each of the final eight games of the year.
Carson-Newman must find a way to replace SAC co-offensive player of the year Brandon Haywood at quarterback. An offensive line that returns three starters who have been named to all-conference teams at various points in their Eagle careers and a tailback corps that returns 92 percent of their rushing yards gained should help aid in the transition at the position.
Defensively, the Eagles forced a bevy of fumbles early – recovering eight in the first three weeks of the season. On the flip side, Carson-Newman had just six total takeaways the rest of the year. Conversely, while the Eagles gave up yards and points by the bushel in the first four weeks, C-N turned into a second half defensive juggernaut in the latter portion of the year. The Eagles allowed 22 second half points the final six weeks of the regular season. Nonetheless, Carson-Newman does return eight starters from last year's unit.
The leading tacklers are back in Jonathan Sites (Hendersonville, Tenn.) and Greg Beauduy (Deerfield Beach, Fla.). But C-N must replace two All-SAC defensive backs as Issac Kinley and Oliver Davis depart the program following their graduation.
Carson-Newman kicks off the season Sept. 5 against Wayne State at 7 p.m.
Team Points (First place votes)
1. Carson-Newman 59 (4)
2. Lenoir-Rhyne 55 (4)
3. Wingate 48
4. Mars Hill 39
5. Newberry 34
6. Tusculum 26
7. Catawba 19
8. Brevard 8