Knoxville, Tenn. (CN Athletics) -- In 21 of the last 24 preseason South Atlantic Conference coaches polls, Carson-Newman has been picked first. The Eagles continued that pervasive trend by the narrowest of margins, beating out defending national runner-up Lenoir-Rhyne for preseason number one in the SAC by a solitary vote.
The three occasions where the Eagles weren't picked first were 1986, 2011 and 2012. 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.
"If those other coaches would just let us go ahead and take a conference title, I'd like being preseason number one a whole lot more," Sparks said with a chuckle. "But unfortunately it doesn't work that way. This doesn't mean much to us other than being a compliment to our program."
Carson-Newman picked up 46 points with four first place votes to L-R's 45 points and four first-place votes. The Bears are three-time defending South Atlantic Conference champs.
"This will be a tough league this year, but it'll be a fun challenge," Sparks said. "L-R has more returning starters than we have, and Newberry too. We just hope our kids accept this and don't think more highly of themselves than they should. What people say won't have much influence on what we do, and what we do is what matters. We're just excited to put some pads on and get ready to play a football game."
The Eagles return seven offensive and five defensive starters from last year's 9-3 club that made the second round of the NCAA playoffs before bowing out to Lenoir-Rhyne. While C-N loses its third and 10th all-time leading rushers from last year in Brandon Baker and Tyron Douglas, the offensive cupboard is fully stocked with quarterback De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) and running back Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.).
Thomas became the first C-N QB with 20 scores in a single season last year; Hibbett needs 600 yards on the year to crack the program's top 15 all-time rushers. Robby Ignagni (Gallatin, Tenn.) takes over an offensive line that has produced an All-American in each of the last two seasons.
Defensively, the Eagles lose all their linebackers and an NFL signee in Anthony Baskin; however, defensive end Javaris Neal (Columbia, Tenn.) and corner Eien Jacob (New Iberia, La.) have both earned preseason All-American honors. They helm a defense that forced 31 turnovers – fifth highest in the nation – a year ago.
Lenoir-Rhyne placed second in the voting as it picked up four top-bids and 45 total points. The Bears won the 2013 South Atlantic Conference Football Crown as it went 13-2 overall and 7-0 in the League. Lenoir-Rhyne received a first-round bye in the NCAA Division II Playoffs and made a run to the National Championship to finish as the 2013 NCAA Division II National Runner-Up.
The Bears ranked No. 1 in Division II with 370.9 rushing yards per game and set the NCAA single-season rushing mark with 5,563 yard. Preseason All-SAC first-team honoree Jarrod Spears posted 985 rushing yards a season-ago. Defensively, the Bears ranked 12th in the country as it held opponents to 101.5 rushing yards per game and were 20th nationally as they limited their opponent's offenses to 317.5 yards per game. Offensive tackle Joe Ray and linebacker Tanner Botts each received bids to the 2014
BeyondSportsNework.com (BSN) Preseason All-America First-Teams, while defensive end Blake Baker earned a spot on the second team. Lenoir-Rhyne has won three-straight SAC Championships and will hit the field for the 2014 season under new head Coach Ian Shields.
Newberry was picked to finish third in the poll as it garnered 36 points from the head coaches. The Wolves closed out the 2013 campaign with a 9-3 overall mark and a 5-2 record in the SAC to finish in a tie for second. Newberry posted an at-large bid to the 2013 NCAA Division II Playoffs. W.T. Murden returns under center for the Wolves as he finished the 2013 season ranked No. 1 in the League and 23rd in the nation with a passer rating of 149.6. Murden threw for 17 touchdowns and 1,964 yards last season. The Wolves had a total of 11 players named to the 2014 Preseason All-SAC teams.
Wingate came in fourth in the voting with 31 points. The Bulldogs turned in a 4-6 overall record and a 3-4 SAC record to tie for fourth in the League. Jordan Berry earned 2014 Second-Team Preseason All-South Atlantic Conference Accolades after finishing the 2013 season with 700 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Offensive lineman Will Poteat earned First-Team Preseason All-SAC accolades.
The Lions of Mars Hill placed fifth in the poll with 25 points. Wide out Dmitri Holmes earned Second Team All-American honors from BSN after finishing the 2013 season ranked No. 2 in the nation with 144.6 receiving yards per game. He hauled in 15 scores to rank No. 5 in Division II, while amassing 1,591 receiving yards to rank fourth. The Lions closed out the 2013 season with a 3-8 overall record and a 1-6 Conference mark.
Catawba placed sixth in the voting with 21 total points. The Indians tied for fourth in the South Atlantic Conference as it posted a 3-4 record in the SAC and a 6-5 overall mark a season ago. Linebacker Jason Taylor earned 2014 First-Team Preseason All-SAC honors after averaging 9.5 tackles per game, seven tackles for loss and two sacks. Offensively, the Indians return their top running backs in Corey Littlejohn and David Burgess. All five starters on the offensive line also return as they are anchored by All-South Atlantic Conference Preseason honoree Taylor Fender.
Tusculum came in at the No. 7 position as it finish the 2013 season with a 4-7 overall mark and a 2-5 record in South Atlantic Conference play to tie for sixth. The Pioneers will have to replace 2013 SAC Offensive Player of the Year Bo Cordell. Cordell finished his career at Tusculum ranked No. 1 in every passing category in both the SAC and Tusculum annals. 2014 Preseason BSN All-American second team wide receiver Justin Houston led the squad with 1,347 receiving yards and seven touch downs last season. Teammate and BSN Preseason All-American Third Team honoree Wesley Powell returns at tight end. Powell hauled in four touchdowns and finished with 520 yards a season ago.
The Brevard College Tornados round out the poll with seven points. Brevard tied for sixth in the SAC as it posted a 3-8 overall record and a 2-5 SAC mark. The Tornados were one of the most disciplined teams in the nation a season ago as it finished third in the nation with only 3.18 penalties per game. Andre Overholt earned Preseason All-SAC plaudits at return specialist for Brevard. Overholt tallied 1,024 yards of return during the 2013 season and accounted for 1,501 all-purpose yards.
The 2014 South Atlantic Conference football season gets underway on Thursday, Sept. 4 with Carson-Newman and Tusculum in action at 7:00pm at home. The rest of the League's teams kick it off on Saturday, Sept. 6.
Team (first-place votes) Points
Carson Newman (4) 46
Lenoir-Rhyne (4) 45
Mars Hill 25