JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Playoff and SAC title implications persist when No. 16 Carson-Newman (7-1, 3-1 SAC) and No. 22 Lenoir-Rhyne (7-1, 5-0 SAC) get together Saturday at 2 p.m. at Moretz Stadium.
Lenoir-Rhyne is the only unbeaten team remaining in South Atlantic Conference play and is the top team in the initial Super Region II rankings. The Eagles are a game back of the Bears in the SAC standings and ranked seventh in Super Region II.
Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks said even with a plethora of storylines and much at stake in Saturday's road affair, the Eagles must treat it just like any other game.
"It only takes one game to mess up the season as far as your dreams, your goals and your hopes," Sparks said. "That being said, it doesn't take but one play to lose a game. So there's no reason to not be focused, to not treat this like any other game and to not have be pushing it past your highest gear."
The matchup features the top offensive attack in the SAC - Carson-Newman's at 507 yards and 40.6 points per game – and the top defense – Lenoir-Rhyne's, which surrenders 13.7 points and 320 yards per contest.
The Bears stingy attack has not given up a rush longer than 40 yards this year. On the flip side, the Eagles have eight carries that have gone for longer than 40.
Carson-Newman has won four straight games, averaging 546 yards of total offense and 426 yards on the ground over the four-game span. But for Sparks, that's not enough.
"We're nowhere near peeking out," Sparks said. "There's not much satisfaction in performing at a level where you believe you're underachieving or at least gaining ground. There's nothing wrong with some difficulties along the way, but there is when you continue to make the same mistakes week in and week out."
Case in point is Carson-Newman's ability to stick it in the endzone after working the ball into the opponent's red zone. C-N has scored TDs on just 58 percent of the time when working it inside the opposition's 20.
Lenoir-Rhyne has been especially stingy in that area. For one, the Bears haven't allow three of their last four opponents to even make it inside their 20 (North Greenville is the exception). For two, once there, L-R has allowed touchdowns on seven of the 16 drives that have made it past the Bears' 20.
"They're well coached and don't do a lot of things to beat themselves," Sparks said. "They're so quick and they move around a lot. They do a ton of interesting things with their front that will keep you guessing."
Carson-Newman defeated Lenoir-Rhyne twice last year, once in the regular season 47-23 and again in the playoffs 38-35. The cast of characters is much the same for the Bears. Jarrod Spears and Graham Duncan are back at wingback for the Bears' option attack, as is Isaiah Whitaker. All three were preseason all-SAC picks at the position with the Eagles' Tyron Douglas (Clover, S.C.) and Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.). Along with C-N QB De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) and running back Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.), plus the Bears' QB Miles Freeman, the game will feature seven of the top 10 rushes in the SAC.
The Bears are the third triple option team the Eagles face this season.
"L-R is more experienced than Shorter and Brevard," Sparks said. "They've got a more experienced offensive line and they're skill people are faster as a whole than any other team we've faced. Every one of Lenoir-Rhyne's players can run. They've got five or six players that can outrun you."
Saturday's meeting with no. 22 Lenoir-Rhyne will be the 58th meeting since the Eagles joined DII with a team ranked in the top 25 and the 32nd in the regular season. Carson-Newman is 32-25in such games overall and 19-12 in meetings occurring in the regular season. The Eagles fell to no. 17 and eventual national champion Valdosta State 48-26 in last year's playoffs. Before that,you have to go back to 2011 to find a regular season meeting with a ranked opponent. Carson-Newman lost to no. 23 Mars Hill that day 23-20.
The Eagles last beat a ranked opponent on Nov.28, 2009 with a 24-21 win over North Alabama in the quarterfinals. For a regular season victoryover a ranked opponent, one needs to go back to 2008 for a 35-33 win over no. 16 Wingate.Carson-Newman is 2-7 in its last nine games against ranked teams. The Eagles have playedteams ranked 22nd twice - both in 2004 - the Eagles beat Catawba 49-30 on Oct. 30 beforewinning against Wingate 41-10 the next week.
Kickoff from Moretz stadium is set for 2 p.m., coverage on the Eagle Sports Network begins at 1 p.m. with the Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), 106.3 ESPN Radio The Zone (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.