October 31, 2013 5:14:21 PM
SCOOBA -- Mississippi junior college football fans have lived the past two seasons without one of the state's premier rivalries being played.
That changes Saturday.
No. 2 East Mississippi Community College (9-0) will play No. 5 Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (8-1) in the opening round of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior College state playoffs.
For EMCC, it is the first ranked opponent of the 2013 season. The schools will meet for the first time since the 2011 state championship game, where EMCC won 42-17 at home.
Kickoff for Saturday's contest is set for 2 p.m. at Sullivan-Windham Field in Scooba. The winner of this contest will face either No. 4 Jones Junior College (8-1) or Itawamba Community College (6-3) Nov. 9 in the state championship game.
"We have put together an outstanding rivalry with Gulf Coast," EMCC sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens said. "The main thing is that we are both always ranked. It is always an entertaining atmosphere and it is a game where there are always a lot of stakes on the line."
EMCC defeated Gulf Coast 75-71 in 2009 to win the MACJC state championship. For EMCC, it was the school's first football state championship. The Lions finished fourth nationally in the final National Junior College Athletic Association Top 20 that season.
Two years later, EMCC won its second state championship by beating Gulf Coast, 42-17 at home. A month later, the Lions won a first-ever national title.
Overall, the teams have met six times, since Stephens took over in Scooba. EMCC has won four of those meetings, also winning regular season meetings (27-23 over then No. 2-Gulf Coast in Perkinston in 2008 and 34-30 over also then-No. 2 Gulf Coast in the 2011 season opener in Scooba). Gulf Coast handed EMCC its only regular season loss in 2009, winning 43-26 in Scooba. Gulf Coast won 40-21 in Perkinston in the 2010 season opener for each team.
Due to a rotation of South Division opponents on EMCC's schedule, the teams have not met in each of the last two regular seasons.
"East Mississippi has not only become one of the premier programs in the state, but also one of the premier programs in the nation," Gulf Coast 10th-year coach Steve Campbell said. "They are having a stretch of some outstanding play. Each week, you want to be challenged. When we get into a game with them, you know it is going to be a war."
After dominance by Northwest Mississippi Community College in the North Division and Pearl River Community College in the South Division in the 2000s, Gulf Coast and EMCC have now taken center stage and become the state's premier programs.
Campbell has guided the Bulldogs to six division championships, six bowl games, three state championships and the 2007 NJCAA national championship. Stephens has guided the Lions to five division championships, two bowl games, two state championships and the 2011 NJCAA national championship.
"The biggest challenge in two-year programs is consistency," Stephens said. "You can't really miss from a recruiting standpoint. You have to bring in players who can contribute right away. We have been fortunate in that our sophomores lead and set a great example. Our first-year players come in and accept the challenge right away and want to be a part of something special."
While each team begins the season with the goal of winning a state championship, the stakes Saturday are much higher for EMCC.
Presently second-ranked in the latest NJCAA Top 20, EMCC trails only Georgia Military College (9-0) in the rankings. EMCC plans to play two more games to complete its season. GMC also has two games left to be played, with no playoff system in the state of Georgia. If both teams win out, a national championship matchup is extremely likely, with the Dec. 8 Mississippi Bowl in Biloxi being a probable destination.
The Lions have held strong at second in the rankings three straight weeks despite a new system, in which strength of schedule is weight heavily. EMCC will finally get a boost there Saturday, as Gulf Coast Saturday and then potentially Jones the following week could mean two Top 5 opponents on back-to-back Saturdays.
Gulf Coast's only loss was a 52-42 home setback to Jones, which cost the Bulldogs a chance at a division title and put a severe dent into national title aspirations. Gulf Coast has won five straight since that defeat.
"We set the goal at the beginning of the year to play 12 games," EMCC sophomore quarterback Dontreal Pruitt said. "We are excited about having that chance. The playoffs are an entirely new season. The first part of the year does not matter now, because we still have not reached the ultimate goals."
The contest matches the Gulf Coast power rushing game, which ranks first in the state, against the EMCC passing attack, which holds a top ranking as well.
Antwan Wells of Gulf Coast leads the state in rushing and ranks 16th nationally at 96 yards per game. Wells is seventh nationally with 12 rushing touchdowns, ironically that is two behind EMCC back-up quarterback Todd Mays who has scored 14 rushing touchdowns, mainly in short-yardage goal line situations.
Meanwhile, Pruitt is third nationally with 343.9 yards per game passing. His 36 touchdowns leads the nation, while four interceptions thrown is the lowest total out of the nation's Top 10 passers.
EMCC has a comfortable lead nationally with averages of 632.9 yards and 65.4 points per game.
"When you have two great offenses playing, the game usually comes down to the team which makes the biggest defensive play," Campbell said. "That is hard to believe but it usually comes down to who can create turnovers and who can have the game-changing play."
If it comes down to defense, EMCC has the market cornered there.
The Lions have posted a school-record five shutouts already this season.
EMCC is allowing a nationally-best 3.7 points per game and a second-best 165.4 yards per game.
"We know how good Gulf Coast is," EMCC sophomore linebacker Christian Russell said. "Even though this year's team hasn't had a chance to play them yet, we know what it takes. We want to a win championship. You have to beat good teams to do that."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter