November 10, 2014 8:59:08 PM
East Mississippi Community College completed its football regular season where it started -- ranked No. 1 in the nation.
While it took several intense moments, EMCC returned to the top of the rankings in the final National Junior College Athletic Association poll released Monday afternoon by the association.
"I have been in this long enough between here and Pearl River (Community College) that I always felt this would work out for the best in the end," EMCC seventh-year coach Buddy Stephens said. "There sure were a lot of people sweating it around here. I wasn't one of them. I just had the confidence it would play itself out correctly."
Official bowl bids for all eight NJCAA games will be extended today.
By winning the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges state championship Saturday, EMCC is locked into a host spot in the Mississippi Bowl, which is set for Dec. 7 at Biloxi High School.
A year ago, EMCC defeated Georgia Military College 52-32 in the Mississippi Bowl to win the school's second-ever national championship.
"It was a great experience for our program," Stephen said. "We were able to take a large group of our fans down there. It was a win-win for our program and it was great for our state."
EMCC will most likely face No. 2 Iowa Western College (11-0) when bowl bids are extended today. Iowa Western had been ranked No. 1 in the last two polls, after EMCC earned the top spot in the preseason poll and the first eight installments of the regular season poll.
The NJCAA rankings are based on large part by a computer formula, which factors in strength of schedule. Other MACJC ranked teams include No. 8 Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and No. 12 Copiah-Lincoln Community College.
Many felt EMCC would take back over No. 1 after it beat then-No. 5 Gulf Coast 42-21 in the MACJC semifinals. However, the Lions lost ground in the following poll.
EMCC climbed back on top with a 54-15 win over then-No. 10 Co-Lin for the state championship. At the same time, Iowa Western completed its regular season with a victory over a 4-7 Iowa Central College team.
"When you look at the resume, it was pretty clear," Stephens said. "We beat four teams ranked in the Top 10 at the time we played them. We really felt like we would get a good kick by beating two highly-ranked teams in our playoffs. We knew the importance of those two games and played very well."
EMCC rallied from a 14-0 deficit to defeat Gulf Coast. On the other hand, the state championship was never in doubt. The Lions scored on three first-quarter possessions to build an early 21-0 lead.
Now, EMCC players will spend the week resting and coaches will spend the week recruiting. A game plan for the bowl opponent will be put together shortly after today's formal announcement.
"We have a lot of players banged up from having played 11 straight weeks," Stephens said. "The time off will be very good. We have a routine and we will follow it closely, since we have won the last two national championship games doing the same thing.
"Obviously, you are going to play a great opponent. We will put together a plan as soon as we get the bowl game finalized. The time off is good. The kids are excited. They will come back, focused and ready to go."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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