In line with feedback, we’re changing things up a bit this year in how we do our Uniball predictions. One thing we continue to receive feedback on is the inconsistency of the depth and quality of predictions between one conference and the next, due to the available time and ability of the writers that cover each group of teams, and how much information is made available to them.
To that end we’re going to shake things up this year and rather than attempting to cover all games with as much detail as possible with the resources available, we’re instead going to focus on particular stand out ‘Games of the Week’ – looking more closely at anywhere between one to three games, spread across the tiers, focusing on those games that perhaps looks particularly tasty and we can go into greater detail in the coverage of.
In Division One we’re going to take a closer look at a showdown between two of the favourites for the top spot in the 1A North. They had tied records at the end of 2017/18, but the Knights pipped the race for the crown off the back of an outstanding defence, including holding the Sharks to zero points on both occasions the two teams met last year… But will it be enough to defend their title in the new season?
Let’s meet the teams:
Edinburgh Napier Knights
The Knights were long known as an outstanding outfit… in terms of organisation and off-field activities, but it’s only been in recent seasons that they’ve managed to translate this into success on the field of play!
After years of hovering mid-table, the introduction of three tiers seemed to give the Knights a new lease of life. They won their first conference crown with a 7-1 season in 2015/16 and followed it up with an undefeated 6-0 campaign in 16/17.
Still, expectations across the community weren’t exactly high last year for the newly promoted Scottish outfit. Many a team struggles to leap the gap between one tier and the next and the Knights had emerged from a Borders conference that wasn’t considered overly competitive.
They opened their time in Division One with a heavy loss to the more established Glasgow Tigers, and you could have been forgiven for believing the Knights spell in the middle tier was to be a brief one…
As such, it was all the more impressive when the newly promoted outfit ended up spending most of the season topping out the 1A North table!
They followed their opening loss with four straight wins, each a shut out from their defence, and while Glasgow still proved an Achilles heel they ended the year with a three-way 5-3 tie at the top of the conference, with their five shutouts on the year giving them the edge in the head to heads.
Back to back crowns was followed by a disappointing postseason, the Knights awarded walkovers due to weather for their first two playoff games, before being handed a walkover-loss to Nottingham in the Northern finals.
As such, Head Coach Pete Laird knows that while some may see the Knights as having a target on their back since their Conference Championship win, the reality is each Uniball season to the next comes with massive changes:
“You never really know where your team is at until that opening competitive kick-off. The beauty of Uniball is that it is a brand new team every year. Recruitment for us at the Knights is not only about raw athletic talent, but also about coachability and a willingness to buy into our team ethos and give the commitment and hard work that it requires to play football whilst still undertaking your studies and getting your qualifications.
We hosted associate university team the Aberdeen Northmen in pre-season as well as travelling to our good neighbours at the Edinburgh Predators. We took the opportunity to try some new things and bleed the new players and they did not disappoint.
As defending conference winners, we know people will come swinging for us. The Knights have been a little anaemic offensively in previous years, and we have relied on ball control football and ferocious Defense. We hope we have managed to tweak a few things for this year and we will see on Sunday how those pan out.
Hull are always a fun team to watch and Coach Wild will have QB Sam Foulds ready to go. It’s a long trip north for the Sharks and let’s hope the weather is a little better than last year’s fixtures!”
Ones to Watch
You just have to look their results in recent seasons to know the Knights have built their success on a dynamic and effective defence. They’ve stacked up shutout after shutout in the last three seasons, and Coach Laird his looking for more of the same this winter – particularly if the secondary can continue to be as effective in taking the ball away from opposing offences:
“Defensive Back Jamie Clark had a team MVP season last year and will be looking to have another successful campaign following his nine interception year.”
However, against a Sharks side that won in a 70+ point shootout in Week One, the Uniball Hall of Fame Head Coach knows Napier will need to put up some points of their own, too:
“Running Back Marcos De Faria Perez is the Knights highest scoring Offensive returning player from last year and we hope he can continue to improve this season.”
Travelling to face the Knights are a Sharks side who’ll most likely considering themselves underdogs coming into this matchup – on paper at least, they’re coming into this game off the back of three straight losses to the Edinburgh outfit last season.
Certainly, the 17/18 season was a transitional year for the Yorkshire side. After a dominant 2016/17 season where their #2 ranked offence had simply blown opponents out of the water, the departure of a number of key veterans meant the Sharks came into the year unsure just how much bite they’d have.
As was, they took a hefty loss to open the season, but began to show some teeth as the year went on – rounding out their campaign with three straight wins that threw them into contention for the conference crown!
However, their bugbear all season long had been one team they simply couldn’t crack – the Napier Knights defence had completely shut down the Sharks on both regular season meetings between the teams, allowing Napier to hoist the conference crown.
When snow led to the schedule third meeting between the two teams to be an awarded win for the Scotsmen, it only added insult to injury for the Sharks, and Head Coach Gareth Wild shared that the team are very aware they’ll need to up their game compared to last season when taking on the Knights:
“Going into Edinburgh we have a point to prove after two less than stellar performances against them last year.
We have the advantage of having played Week One, but carry those knocks into a game against a fresh side. Pregame prep is limited as we are facing a team yet to play whereas they travelled down south to film us last weekend, so the ability to adapt and react will, as ever, be key.
I’m looking for an overall improved performance, less mistakes and a higher energy level. Edinburgh will be well drilled and the key to victory will be the executing consistently.”
As Coach Wild noted, the Sharks do come into this game with some good momentum having opened their campaign in Week One with a 34-38 win over the Northumbria Mustangs. Having already shaken off the offseason dust, Coach Wild believes the Sharks have gone a long way to patching up the holes graduations have left in the roster:
“The offseason has been successful in terms of the committee working hard to secure new sponsorship, replace ageing kit and reduce the cost for players.
We do have a good recruiting class though most are still very much rookies and will need to learn and develop fast. That said, the preseason wasn’t without its challenges due to the loss of several key graduates, some unexpected, and three valued members of the coaching staff.
My ethos building up to this year has been we simply need to be that bit better than the player, or team, in front of us… Though I might have phrased it slightly differently to the team.”
Ones To Watch
When asked who the stand out players on his roster coming into this game were, Coach Wilds was coy with his answer – emphasising that it’s very early in the season to know who’s going to emerge as the go-to ballers on either side of the football:
“We’ve got some guys with great potential, but it’s perhaps a little too early to tell who in particular will emerge this season. If things go well though, I expect there’s a couple of players who could really shine this year – but I’ll be keeping that under wraps for now!”
While their offence was key to the win over the Mustangs, the Sharks will be looking for the defence to also up it’s game this weekend. Team captain and leader of the defence is Matthias Moss, who found his flair for the game during his second year with the team:
“Matthias has developed into a great run stopper who is no slouch in the passing game. Heading in to his final year having been elected team captain, big things are expected of Matthias in both output on the field and leadership intangibles.”.
When last they met…
As noted above, on paper these two teams met three times last year – twice during the regular season, and once during playoffs.
However, with the winter weather putting pay to so many games during the latter part of last season, the teams never stepped onto the gridiron for the third meeting in the D1 Quarter Finals – Napier instead awarded a 1-0 win.
Still, their two regular-season meetings were telling, as Napier’s resilient defence, combined with some pretty atrocious weather, utterly shut down the Sharks offence on either side of the Christmas break – losing 0-22 in Week Six, followed by a gruelling 7-0 defeat in Week Eight.
But whos winning this one?
The Sharks have already shown they have some teeth this year, but will it be blunted by the Knights’ steel?
Let’s see what our BUCS office believes…
Predictions for all BUCS fixtures are also incoming, they’ll just be in a simpler, pick’em style format this season.