August 14, 2013 12:22:50 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
A quick glance at the junior college football schedules revealed arch-rivals East Mississippi Community College and Itawamba Community College will play each other the final week of the regular season.
Already an intense rivalry, the volume got turned up a notch last season when Itawamba knocked off EMCC 24-23 in a stunning upset which derailed the Lions' hopes of a repeat national championship.
The encore matchup is expected to be just as intense. It got spiced up even more when both teams appeared in the preseason NJCAA Top 20 national rankings released Tuesday morning.
EMCC (8-2 in 2012) is rated No. 8 in the nation, while Itawamba (6-3) begins the season ranked 16th.
The poll includes three other in-state schools -- Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. is No. 1, while Copiah-Lincoln C.C. is ninth and Hinds C.C. is 15th.
"The junior college schedule is so quick because you only play nine games, without an open date," Itawamba fourth-year coach Jon Williams said. "You have to be at your best every week, because any team can beat another team in this league.
"A ranking in August means nothing other than your team has potential.
"Every coach in America starts the season thinking this is their year and that you have potential to have a good season."
EMCC finished 2011 No. 1 in the nation and won the program's first national championship.
With that success came a pre-season ranking of No. 1 year later. Despite winning their first seven games, the Lions would slip as low as fifth but move back to third before the stunning loss at Itawamba.
"Essentially, you want to be in the discussion," EMCC sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens said. "When you start the season in the Top 10, you start the season in the discussion.
"Still, so much has to happen. You have to win your games and you have to catch breaks. It is nice for the program to be recognized and to be in the discussion."
The national championship team in 2011 actually began the season ranked 16th in the nation. The Lions slowly moved up the rankings but still appeared to be odd-man out late in the season, getting no higher than third before the regular season ended. However, other upsets around the nation pushed EMCC to second and a bowl win over Arizona Western College pushed EMCC over the top.
The Lions have appeared in the preseason national rankings in five of Stephens' six seasons as coach. The program had never been No. 1 before winning the national championship game in 2011.
EMCC begins this season with 22 straight weeks as a nationally-ranked ballclub.
With the NJCAA rankings now including a strength of schedule component, that could hurt EMCC as eight opponents this season are not ranked in the preseason.
"It's really a grind in our league and it does not matter who you play," Stephens said. "All you can control is what is in front of your football team each week. We let the last two games get away last season. I think this team will come back more determined to not let those things happen this year."
EMCC ran its two-season win streak to 20 straight games before back-to-back losses to Itawamba in the regular season finale and Co-Lin in the playoffs.
Co-Lin and EMCC are the lone ranked opponents on the Itawamba schedule. However, both of those checking in in the Top 10 is a good thing for the Indians.
Gulf Coast begins the season as the nation's top-ranked team despite losing last season's state title game to Co-Lin.
The Top Five also includes Snow College, Navarro College, defending NJCAA national champion Iowa Western Community College and Butler Community College.
If the rankings serve as a guide, Co-Lin and Gulf Coast appear on another crash course for South Division honors. The same for EMCC and Itawamba would not shocking.
EMCC has won the last two North Division championships, while Itawamba has tied for second (but missed the playoffs) three straight seasons.
Thus, the EMCC-ICC showdown on Oct. 24 should be fun.
"The win last year was huge and helped us on the recruiting trail," Williams said. "But we are not going to let one win define our program."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter