JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - This is the first part in an 11-part series breaking down all of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2018 season. This feature analyzes the Eagles' opener against West Florida.
For the first time since 2011, Carson-Newman opens a year on the road, and boy, do the Eagles do so with a doozy.
Carson-Newman makes the eight-hour trek south to Pensacola to play in the Sunshine State against the defending national runners-up West Florida. The Argonauts were 7-3 at the conclusion of the regular season. They sneaked in the playoffs following a win at West Georgia in the final week of the regular season. Then UWF proved the committee right for their playoff inclusion, and reeled off four straight wins, including victories over SAC champion Wingate 34-0 and top-ranked Indiana (Pa.), to earn a spot in the national title game.
That magical run came up just short for the second-year program. West Florida fell to Texas A&M-Commerce 37-27 in the final stage.
There's no question West Florida is primed for another run in 2018. However, there's not exactly a consensus on just how good the Argos will be.
Case in point, according to national publications, the Argos are the team to beat in 2018. Lindy's, Street and Smith and the College Football Yearbook all have West Florida as the preseason number one heading into the year. Who can blame those publications? West Florida returns a similar number of players from its two-deep compared to Carson-Newman.
In its preseason preview for Division II, Lindy's wrote that the Argos only lost about 10 players from its entire two-deep. By comparison, Carson-Newman is down five from its two-deep (offensive lineman Stokes Rowe, receiver Dorren Miller, running backs Jared Dillingham and Diantae Thomas and linebacker Sha'Heem Stupart, for those scoring at home).
However, when the Gulf South's preseason poll was released Thursday, it wasn't the Argos who were ranked number one.
That honor was bestowed to West Alabama, the team that earned the top seed in Super Region II in last year's playoffs and won the Gulf South's regular season crown.
The Tigers earned six first place votes and was picked first with 62 total points, narrowly ahead of the Argonauts with 59 points. UWF garnered three first place votes, marking the first time in program history that has occurred.
There's also no shame in being picked as a runner-up to West Alabama in the highly-competitive Gulf South. The Tigers have been a unanimous choice in the national rankings for Lindy's, S&S and CFY.
A record six Argonauts – Samuel Antoine, Antoine Griffin and Ishmel Morrow on offense, Marvin Conley and Andre Duncombe, Jr. on defense, and Austin Williams on special teams – were named to the preseason all-GSC team by the league's nine head coaches.
Antoine was the starting left tackle for the second half of the season and the junior helped the Argos average 348 yards of total offense in 2017.
Griffin was a second team all-GSC selection a year ago when he hauled in 63 receptions for 898 yards and four touchdowns. He is the leading returning receiver in the GSC in four categories. The senior also led the GSC with a 15.8 yards per punt return average.
Morrow, who redshirted the 2017 season, returns for his senior campaign after an All-America season in 2016. He led the GSC during the program's inaugural year with 1,035 receiving yards and eight touchdowns which also resulted in first team All-Region and first team All-GSC honors.
Conley is looking to add to his impressive resume which saw him earn All-America honors last season. The senior had four interceptions and returned a pair of them for scores to lead the GSC. He also led the league with 104 tackles, including 59 solo stops.
Duncombe ended 2017 with 60 tackles, including 32 solos, while adding five sacks. The junior also had four interceptions, three pass break-ups and three quarterback hurries.
As a sophomore, Williams made an immediate impact in his first year at UWF, breaking the league record with 27 field goals. He added 45 extra points for a school-record 126 points that propelled him to All-America and First Team All-GSC plaudits.
Missing from that list is starting quarterback Mike Beaudry, who lost out to West Alabama's Harry Satterwhite (the Gulf South only picks a first team for preseason all-conference selections).
Beaudry established school records for passing yards (3,215), passing touchdowns (29) and wins as a starter while completing 55.1 pct. of his passes for 229.6 yards per game. He was one of 40 quarterbacks nationwide to be invited to the Manning Passing Academy as a camp counselor.
Other QBs who were invited include: Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama, Khalil Tate of Arizona, Jarrett Stidham of Auburn, Jake Fromm of Georgia, Drew Lock of Missouri, Brandon Wimbush of Notre Dame, Jake Browning of Washington, Harry Satterwhite of West Alabama, Will Grier of West Virginia.
The Argos' offense was balanced fairly evenly, although the passing game was more productive. UWF ran the ball 512 times last year. It passed it 517 times. However, in yards gained, the passing game surpassed the running game nearly 2:1 (228 yards per game to 115 yards per game).
The Argos head coach is Pete Shinnick and he should be somewhat familiar to Carson-Newman fans.
Shinnick is no stranger to early-program success, guiding UNC Pembroke from its program's founding in 2007 to his departure for Pensacola in 2012. Shinnick and C-N head coach Mike Turner have clashed four times with the series split 2-2. The Eagles had bookend wins in the series, downing Shinnick's Braves 35-22 in 2009 and 31-10 in 2012. However, it was Shinnick's teams who triumphed in 2010 and 2011, doing so in resounding fashion 30-7 and 42-14, respectively.
The trip to Pensacola will be Carson-Newman's first visit to Florida since a 2003 trip to Florida International. The Eagles whipped their higher-division foe that day 55-33. Carson-Newman is 1-1 all-time in the state. C-N lost to Central Florida and its freshman quarterback Dante Culpepper 35-21 in 1995.
This will be Carson-Newman's first regular-season matchup with a Gulf South school since beating Shorter 20-7 in 2015.
It also has the potential to be the Eagles' first meeting in the regular season with a team ranked number one in the nation (official rankings for these purposes are based on the AFCA coaches poll and the D2Football.com media rankings). Carson-Newman has squared off three times with a team ranked number one since becoming a Division II program in 1992. All three meetings came against North Alabama in the playoffs in the mid-90s. The Lions won all three games.
The Better Know The Opponent series continues Tuesday with a glimpse into week two opponent Virginia Union.