ROCK HILL, S.C. – For just the fifth time in 29 years, Carson-Newman's football team hasn't been picked to win the South Atlantic Conference.
Defending SAC champion Catawha was picked by the league's coaches to win the league with three first place votes and 55 points overall. The Eagles finished two points behind the Bears with three first place votes and 43 points.
This season joins four other occasions where the Eagles weren't picked first were 1986, 2011, 2012 and 2015. C-N won the conference title in 1986, one of 14 in the years since. However, the Eagles haven't won a SAC title since 2009, the longest conference title drought in the Ken Sparks era.
Carson-Newman has been the runner-up in the league four years running.
Last year, the Eagles' offense was the name of the game. Carson-Newman boasted one of the nation's top-rated offenses as they averaged 43.3 points per game to rank No. 5 in Division II and 497.5 yards per game to come in at No. 4 in the country during the 2015 season. Carson-Newman finished the 2015 campaign with 5,970 yards of total offense and 519 total points to lead the South Atlantic Conference in both categories. No one in the country in NCAA Division I, II or III had more rushing touchdowns than the Eagles' 59 scores on the ground.
The Catawba Indians took home its first South Atlantic Conference Football Championship since 2007 as it claimed the 2015 Title. Catawba finished the 2015 SAC season 6-1 to go along with an overall record of 9-3. The Catawba Indians are currently ranked No. 15 in the Sporting News National Poll and return the 2015 South Atlantic Conference sack leader in Kyle Kitchens. Kitchens, a preseason All-American, lead the League with 12 sacks a season-ago and helped the Catawba Indians amass 29 sacks to rank No. 1 in the Conference. Offensively, Catawba returns quarterback Mike Sheehan. Sheehan completed 60 percent of his passes last season to rank No. 2 in the SAC. He posted also 1,605 yards through the air and eight touchdowns as well as rushing for 12 scores and 694 yards.
Newberry finished at No. 3 in the 2016 SAC preseason poll. The Wolves posted a 4-3 League record and a 7-5 overall mark during the 2015 season. Newberry returns quarterback Raleigh Yeldell for the 2016 season after he led the South Atlantic Conference with a 61.8 completion percentage during the 2015 campaign. The Wolves ranked second in the South Atlantic Conference with 4,745 yards of total offense and threw for 20 scores to rank No. 2 in the League in 2015. On the defensive side, Newberry led the League with 14 recovered fumbles. The Wolves received two top votes and finished the poll with 36 points.
Mars Hill came in at No. 4 in the preseason poll as it finished the 2015 tied for second in the League at 5-2 in SAC play and 6-5 overall. The second-place finish marked the Lions' highest finish in the League since the 2012 season. The Lions ranked second in the League last season with 2,401 passing yards and 20 touchdowns through the air. Mars Hill returns a pair of the League's top receivers from the 2015 season in KeShaun Taylor and Gilbert Johnson. Taylor topped the League a season-ago with 1,183 receiving yards, 107.5 receiving yards per game and 10 touchdowns. Johnson was right behind Taylor as he hauled in nine touchdowns and led the League with 19.7 yards per catch. The Lions collected 30 points from the panel.
The Wingate Bulldogs landed at No. 5 in the preseason poll. Wingate highlighted its 2015 season with a historic win over Lenoir-Rhyne on Oct. 17. The win snapped a 22-game South Atlantic Conference winning streak for the Bears as Wingate handed Lenoir-Rhyne its first home loss in five years. Running back Lawrence Pittman returns for the 2016 after finishing second in the League with 111.5 rushing yards per game on a League-best 245 attempts during the 2015 season. The Bulldogs collected 27 points from the voters.
At No. 6 in the poll was Lenoir-Rhyne. The Bears led the nation in rushing yards a season-ago as it averaged 384.7 yards per game. The Bears went 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the League play in 2015. Lenoir-Rhyne will have a new look on the sidelines as it will begin the 2016 season with a new head coach in Mike Kellar. Lenoir-Rhyne finished with 22 points from the panel.
Tusculum College collected 14 points from the League's head coaches to place No. 7 in the preseason poll. The Pioneers will welcome back the League's top-rated passing quarterback as junior quarterback Luke Lancaster returns for the 2016 season. Lancaster threw for a League-best 3,167 yards, 287.9 yards per game and 21 touchdowns during the 2015 season. The Pioneers will begin a new era during the 2016 season as they welcome in a new head coach in Jerry Odom. The Pioneers closed out the 2015 season 2-5 in the League and 4-7 overall.
Brevard College rounded out the poll at No. 8. Brevard boasted a strong defensive secondary during the 2015 season as it held opponents to just over 160 yards per game through the air. The Tornados finished the 2015 season 0-11 overall and 0-7 in SAC play and picked up seven points in the preseason poll.
2016 SAC Football Preseason Poll
Rank School (first-place votes) Points
1. Catawba (3) 45
2. Carson-Newman (3) 43
3. Newberry (2) 36
4. Mars Hill 30
5. Wingate 27
6. Lenoir-Rhyne 22
7. Tusculum 14
8. Brevard 7