ROCK HILL, S.C. (TheSAC.com) – Newberry College has been voted by the South Atlantic Conference football head coaches to win the 2017 SAC Football Championship, the League announced today. The Wolves collected six first-place votes and 55 points from the panel. The honor marks the first time in Newberry history that the Wolves have been No. 1 in the South Atlantic Conference Preseason Football Poll.
The Wolves took home their first South Atlantic Conference Football Championship since 2008 as it claimed the 2016 Title. Newberry finished the 2016 season ranked No. 16 in the country by the American Football Coaches Association as it turned in a 10-2 record overall and a 7-0 record in League play. Newberry completed 68 percent of its passes during the 2016 campaign to rank No. 4 in the nation, while its 294 passing yards per game was good for No. 20 in Division II. Newberry led the League in scoring offense with 36.3 points per outing and on the defensive side ranked first in the SAC in scoring defense as the Wolves held their opponents to 20.1 points per game.
At No. 2 in the poll was Wingate. The Bulldogs turned in their best finish in League play since the 2012 season as it closed out the 2016 season tied for second in the League standings at 8-3 overall and 5-2 in the SAC. Wingate's eight over wins was also the most victories since the 2010 season when Wingate won the League and posted a 9-3 overall record. The Bulldogs boasted one of the strongest defenses in the League during 2016 as it ranked No. 3 nationally in first down defense with 147. The Bulldogs scored four defensive touchdowns to top the SAC and picked off 17 passes to lead the Conference. Offensively, Wingate paced at No. 2 in the South Atlantic Conference with 227 rushing yards per game and 199.4 yards through the air. In the red zone, the Bulldogs scored on 89 percent of its trips inside the 20 yard line. Wingate collected one first-place vote and 47 points from the panel.
Catawba came in at No. 4 in the preseason poll as it finished the 2016 season tied for second at 5-6 overall and 5-2 in League play. The Catawba Indians are looking for their second South Atlantic Conference title in three years as it claimed the 2015 SAC Football Championship. Linebacker Kyle Kitchens was named preseason All-America by both Street and Smith's and Lindy's. Kitchens racked up eight and half sacks last season and was in on 16 stops for losses. In three seasons, the senior has posted 26.5 sacks with 48 stops for losses. Catawba blocked five kicks during the 2016 season to lead the South Atlantic Conference and posted three punt blocks to top the League stats. The Catawba Indians' 13 fumble recoveries were good for No. 22 in the nation, while their 14 interceptions ranked second in the League. Catawba collected 39 points from the panel.
Carson-Newman landed at No. 5 in the preseason poll. The Eagles went 4-7 overall and 2-5 in the SAC during the 2016 season. Longtime offensive coordinator Mike Turner became the Eagles' 18th head football coach after the retirement and passing of legendary coach Ken Sparks. Carson-Newman led the South Atlantic Conference on the ground with 272.8 rushing yards per game. The Eagles passed for over 16 yards per completion to top all SAC squads. In total offense, Carson-Newman amassed 458 yards per game and led the League. Carson-Newman scored on 85 percent of its trips in the red zone to pace at No. 2 in the League and came in at No. 3 in the League with 32.5 points per contest. The Eagles collected 33 points from the voters.
At No. 6 in the poll was Tusculum. The Pioneers finished the 2016 season tied for fourth-place in the League standings as they posted a 4-7 overall record and a 3-4 record in League action. The Tusculum secondary was a formidable opponent in 2016 as it held opponents to just 154 yards per game to rank second in the League to go along with 10 interceptions. Tusculum tied for first in the League with 13 fumble recoveries as it placed second in the South Atlantic Conference with 8.0 tackles per loss per game. The Pioneers finished with 26 points from the panel.
Lenoir-Rhyne and first year associate member Limestone rounded out the poll with 19 points.
The Bears tied for No. 4 on the SAC standings in 2016 as it closed out the season at 3-8 overall and 3-4 in the League. Lenoir-Rhyne picked up wins over Tusculum, Carson-Newman and then SAC member Brevard during the 2016 campaign. The Bears ranked No. 1 in the South Atlantic Conference with just 16.4 kickoff yards per return.
Limestone, who has competed as a NCAA D-II Independent over the last three years, turned in a record of 5-6 last season. The Saints posted wins over Lenoir-Rhyne, Catawba and then member Brevard a season ago. Limestone recovered 17 fumbles to tie for first in the nation and allowed just 176 passing yards per game to pace at No. 20 in Division II. Defensive back Joshua Simmons was named to the College Football America 2017 Yearbook Division II Starting Lineup after leading the nation with three interception returns for touchdowns last season. He finished his 2016 season with 42 tackles, eight interceptions, 12 break ups and a pair of fumble recoveries.
The 2017 South Atlantic Conference football season gets underway on Thursday, Aug. 31 with Carson-Newman, Catawba, Lenoir-Rhyne and Tusculum in action. The rest of the League's teams kick it off on Saturday, Sept. 2.
2017 SAC Football Preseason Poll
Rank School (first-place votes) Points
1. Newberry (6) 55
2. Wingate (1) 47
3. Mars Hill (1) 42
4. Catawba 39
5. Carson-Newman 33
6. Tusculum 26
7. Lenoir-Rhyne 19