The Valdosta Daily Times
The scoreboard might have read that West Alabama won the Sept. 22 meeting against Valdosta State, but with the way the Super Region 2 rankings worked out, it looks more like the Blazers won the game and eventually the conference.
“We really feel like we didn’t get any credit for winning that game,” West Alabama football coach Will Hall said. “On a national landscape, as far as it is concerned, Valdosta won that game. That is just the way it is viewed. When it is brought up in general conversation, people are shocked when they look and see the final score had us with more points than them.”
“Some people say we just got lucky and they say Valdosta lost that game; we didn’t win it,” Hall continued. “They say they didn’t play well and we really didn’t have anything to do with that. So we’re going to have to go down there and do it again.”
In reality, West Alabama beat the Blazers 39-28 and later secured its first-ever outright Gulf South Conference championship.
But when the final region rankings were released last Sunday, the Blazers were ranked ahead of the Tigers, and were positioned to host their conference rivals in the second round of the Division II playoffs if West Alabama were to beat Miles in the first round.
The Tigers routed Miles 42-7 and secured their second trip to Valdosta this season. The teams will meet Saturday at noon at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
“I think a lot of things played into it. I don’t know what all did, because I’m not part of the deal,” Hall said. “I do know that the outright GSC champion has never been ranked No. 4. I’ve gone back and looked at it, and I can’t find a year where it happened. For whatever reason, nobody thinks we are that good.”
After the Tigers’ 11-point win over the Blazers in September, Valdosta State reeled off six straight wins to finish second in the GSC and secure the region’s No. 1 seed. The Tigers finished 5-2 and withstood the mid-season loss of Player of the Year candidate Matt Willis, the conference’s rushing leader at the time of his injury.
Willis tore his ACL the week after the game in Valdosta, just minutes after becoming UWA’s all-time leading rusher against West Georgia.
“We had to re-define ourselves offensively,” Hall said. “This is the second year in a row where we lost the guy that we built our offense around in the first half of the season. We lost Matt this year. Last year, we lost Gary Johnston.”
Since Willis’ injury, Johnston has moved into the role of leading rusher for the Tigers. Johnston is averaging 73.3 yards rushing per game and has 12 rushing touchdowns this season, while the Tigers have also started to increase their passing production. West Alabama quarterback Kyle Caldwell has completed 87 of 146 passes for 1,299 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
“We are more versatile than we were (at the beginning of the season),” Hall said. “A bunch of different guys are getting the ball. We are throwing the ball a bunch better. We have just evolved. I am proud of our guys and our coaching staff. To have to overcome an injury to the best player, probably, in the country, I think it speaks volumes about the depth of our program.”
Meanwhile, Valdosta State has picked up its play, too. The Blazers are averaging 43 points per game since the loss to West Alabama, while allowing 19 points per contest.
Now the Blazers and the Tigers will meet for the opportunity to advance to the national quarterfinals. The winner will face either Lenoir-Rhyne or Carson-Newman.
“The first game doesn’t matter now. Valdosta is an extremely improved team,” Hall said. “I think that we are improved. The things that cause you to lose games will be huge — turnovers, penalties, handling adversity. That’ll determine this game. This is a huge game, a huge matchup.
“Obviously, the last time we played, it was a great football game with a lot of great players. I think both coaching staffs are really great. I have a lot of respect for Coach (David) Dean; I like to think we are good friends. I know they are going to be ready. They’ve had a lot of time off, and they’ve probably been practicing for us for four weeks now.”