Lenoir-Rhyne: The Bears have won at least a share of the last four SAC football titles, including last year’s 11-1, 7-0 team that finished ranked No. 8 in Division II. L-R has been solid on both sides of the ball over that stretch and should be the same this season.
Carson-Newman: The Eagles (7-3, 5-2 last season) fielded a high-flying offense, ranking No. 3 nationally in rushing yards a game and No. 2 in third-down conversion percentage. Head coach Ken Sparks passed Bear Bryant for the No. 6 spot on the NCAA all-time victory list, while continuing a battle against prostate cancer.
Catawba: The Indians posted a 6-5 record for the second straight season in 2014, and could be poised to move up in the standings. A ball-hawking defense – 11 fumble recoveries, tops in the conference last season, and 12 interceptions – could help.
FIVE TO WATCH
Joe Ray, Lenoir-Rhyne, OL, SR (6-1, 270): All-American selection and winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top offensive lineman for the past two seasons. Led the way for the Bears to set a Division II rushing record of 416 yards a game.
Eric Mapoles, Wingate, LB, SR (6-0, 225): Only player in Division II to be named to his All-Conference team in 2014 while also winning Academic All-American and NCAA Good Works community service recognition. On the field, recorded 72 tackles, 7 1/2 for loss.
De’Andre Thomas, Carson-Newman, QB, SR (6-0, 190): Double threat for the potent Eagles’ attack. Rushed for 850 yards and 16 touchdowns and passed for 1,170 yards and nine more scores in 2014.
Jamel Harbison, Mars Hill, RB/WR, JR, (5-11, 190): Former Mallard Creek standout made an immediate impact as a running back with the Lions after transferring from Minnesota. Rushed for 1,204 yards and nine TDs in 2014.
Mark McDaniel, Catawba, DB, SR, (5-11, 185): Had a big year for the Indians in 2014 with 52 tackles (including six for loss), five interceptions – second in the league – and nine pass break-ups. Preseason All-SAC selection .
DON'T MISS THIS GAME
Oct. 3: Carson-Newman at Lenoir-Rhyne, 2 p.m. in Hickory. This has been the conference championship showdown for the past several years. The Bears took a 35-32 road win in last season’s meeting.
Lenoir-Rhyne changed head coaches last season – Ian Shields for Mike Houston, who went to The Citadel. But the Bears’ winning ways didn’t miss a beat. Carson-Newman has been the league’s historical powerhouse and will be near the top, but L-R has been the elite team in this decade.
Next: Southern Conference