VALDOSTA -- The long and bumpy road through the Gulf South Conference, often labeled the SEC of Division II football, begins today for Valdosta State.

First stop, Cleveland, Miss.

After the Blazers lone off-week of the season, Valdosta State travels to Delta State for an 8 p.m. kickoff at Travis Parker Field.

"We've had two good weeks of preparation and we're looking forward to opening up conference play this week," said Blazers' head coach Chris Hatcher. His Blazers are ranked No. 1 in one national poll (writers), No. 2 in two others.

The Statesmen are one of the Blazers' oldest rivals, having played Valdosta State every year since the university's inception of football 21 years ago (North Alabama and West Alabama are the only other two schools to do that). Delta State and North Alabama are the only teams on Valdosta State's 2003 schedule to hold a winning series record over the Blazers.

GSC teams are a combined 17-5 through the first three weeks of the season and have posted five wins over Division 1-AA opponents. Delta State head coach Rick Rhoades has his team off to a 2-0 start after one of those I-AA wins last week, 45-0 over Mississippi Valley State.

"This is the second year Rick Rhoades has been the coach there," Hatcher said. "They look like they're more comfortable in what they're trying to accomplish. We've got to go to their place and every Gulf South Conference game is going to be tough and I think this year may be the toughest the league has been in a long time."

Offensively, the Statesmen have gotten off to a fast start out of the gates. They rank at or near the top of the conference in almost every offensive category -- 46.5 points/game, 556 total yards/game, 291 rushing yards/game -- although their first two opponents have been suspect (combined 0-5 record).

This Delta State team isn't the same option based offense of old, either. Led by freshman quarterback Scott Eyster (29-50, 509 yards, 5 TDs) and running back David Yeates (31 carries, 197 yards, 2 TDs), the Statesmen are more balanced and potentially more dangerous.

"They mix it up with a lot of formations," Hatcher said. "They do a little bit of everything, instead of just based on one [offense], so we've got to be ready for a multitude of formations and a multitude of plays."

The Delta State defense isn't bad, either. The Statesmen have allowed just seven points in wins over Cumberland (Tenn.) and Mississippi Valley State and have recorded a conference-best 14 sacks, four more than Valdosta State. Delta State's defensive line is anchored by tackle Anthony Maddox, who is from Funston, Ga. Maddox has 12 tackles, five for loss, and a half a sack in two games.

"Anthony Maddox reminds me of Dewayne Smith [former GSC defensive player of the year with the Blazers] an awful lot," Hatcher said. "I think he may be one of or the best defensive linemen in the conference."

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