By Scott Walters/(Columbus) Commerical Dispatch
East Mississippi Community College is ready for the biggest athletic event in its history.
The school’s No. 2 football team (11-0) will take on No. 1 Arizona Western College (11-0) at 3:30 p.m. today in the El Toro Bowl presented by Time Warner Cable. The unbeaten powers play for the NJCAA national championship at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Yuma, Ariz.
While EMCC is one win away from the school’s first national championship in football, speculation leading up to today’s game has focused on how the 2011 team would stack up against the state’s elite teams.
“This East Mississippi team is very good,” Mississippi junior college football historian Frank Wilson said. “They have an enormous talent on the offensive side of the ball. When they click, they are unstoppable. Defensively, they hide their few deficiencies well. They have several players who will play senior college ball, and some who will play on Sundays (in the NFL).”
EMCC coach Buddy Stephens has turned the Lions into a national title contender in four seasons, winning three North Division titles and the school’s first state championship in 2009. That season ended with a Mississippi Bowl victory against Arizona Western College.
The Lions have won 35 of 43 games with Stephens as head coach. When this year ends, EMCC will have placed in the final NJCAA top 10 three of the past four seasons. The Lions set a school record for victories with 11 in 2009 and have matched that total for today’s finale.
Stephens prefers to heap praise on his players rather than talk about hypotheticals, but he admits his club is “very good.”
“We have an offensive philosophy in place, which is very successful,” Stephens said. “The players are important, but not as important as the execution. When our offense is run properly, we are going to score lots of points. When the defense makes some stops and forces some turnovers, that is when we become a very good ball club.”
While there is no official junior college playoff system, the No. 1 team in the final NJCAA poll is widely considered the national champion. With Arizona Western and EMCC at Nos. 1 and 2, there won’t be any speculation about which team is the best this season.
In the past, as many as four publications crowned junior college national champions. JuCo Gridwire crowned a champion for more than two decades. The only recognized junior college national champion this season is the official NJCAA top 20. The final ranking will be released Monday after seven bowl games are played this weekend.
“East Mississippi has everything you need to win a national championship,” Mississippi Gulf Coast CC coach Steve Campbell said. “You can’t blink or the game is over. If you make a mistake, they are going to make you pay for it. Every game with them is a track meet. You can’t falter or you won’t win the game.
“They will rank among the best we have had in this state. They will represent the state well in Arizona. They are that good.”
Campbell guided the Bulldogs to state titles in 2007, 2008 and 2010. Campbell also carried Gulf Coast to the state’s last national championship – a co-title awarded by the NJCAA in 2007. Gulf Coast shared the title with Butler CC in Kansas after each school won bowl games.
EMCC will attempt to become the state’s fifth school to win a NJCAA national title in football. Gulf Coast won titles in 1971 and 1984, Northwest Mississippi CC in 1982 and 1992 and Mississippi Delta CC in 1993. With Stephens as assistant coach, Pearl River CC won the 2004 national title.
This is the third time EMCC has been ranked second nationally. EMCC spent two weeks at No. 2 in 2009 before suffering its lone loss of the season at home to Gulf Coast. Legendary coach Bob “Bull” Sullivan had a squad rated as high as No. 2 in 1950, his first season as coach. Sullivan had the Lions as high as No. 3 in 1963 and ’64.
Mississippi State Sen. Terry Brown played for Sullivan in 1968 and 1969. A 2011 EMCC Hall of Fame inductee, Brown likes what he has seen from this year’s squad.
“This is a very special team, no doubt about it,” Brown said. “With the new stadium and a good team on the field, the atmosphere is electric. Bull had some good teams, but it is not a stretch to say this is the best team ever at EMCC.”
A 21-year coaching veteran, Stephens began the junior college part of his coaching career in 2001 at his alma mater, Pearl River CC. In seven seasons there, Stephens was an offensive assistant for four state championship teams and the 2004 national title team.