VALDOSTA -- If Valdosta State was looking for this year's regular-season rivalry, it need not look any further.

The No. 1 Blazers will find it today in the form of No. 3 North Alabama when the pigskin flies at 1 p.m. on Cleveland Field.

After being absent for the past five years, the rivalry, hatred and intensity in the series has returned thanks in large part to the resurgence of North Alabama's program under head coach Mark Hudspeth, who knows a thing or two about beating Valdosta State.

The second-year Lions head coach was offensive coordinator for the 2000 Division II national champion Delta State team that beat the Blazers twice that year, including Valdosta State's only regular-season loss under Valdosta State head coach Chris Hatcher.

He'll try to duplicate that feat today as a head coach, but it won't be easy, especially against a Valdosta State coaching staff that remembers the losses to North Alabama in the early-to-mid 1990s.

"All the coaches here were always on the wrong end of the deal [vs.] the great North Alabama teams," Hatcher said. "We look at the rivalry a little different than the players do."

Even though most of the Blazers were just starting middle school when the rivalry was at its fiercest, the players still see the significance of today's GSC showdown.

"They're all big, but this one is bigger than some we've played lately," Blazers' running back Aaron Jenkins said.

Said Blazers' quarterback Barrett Wilkes, "You've got to stay focused in a big game like this. We're probably going to play well because coach is going to have us ready. They've got a great ballclub so we've got to be ready."

Valdosta State's practice routine went on as scheduled this week, just like any other week, but Hatcher says he could still sense a difference in his players.

"This week we prepared like any other week, but the guys' mentality has been a little different and rightly so," Hatcher said. "There's a lot more riding on this game than just any other game."

The Blazers put their number one ranking on the line today, as well as the top spot in the South Region poll, which means home field advantage in the playoffs is at stake. The winner also has the inside track to the GSC championship, needing only to win one of its final two games of the season to clinch the conference title.

If the Blazers are to maintain their 35-game regular season winning streak and 29-game GSC streak, they'll have to slow down Lions' senior quarterback Will Hall. Hall, who leads Division II in passing efficiency, caught Hatcher's eye long before he ever put on a Lions' jersey.

"Will Hall is really the guy that makes them go," Hatcher said. "We looked at him [as a recruit] and were going to try to get him here, but we were pretty settled at the quarterback position at the time."

Hall went on to star at Northeast Mississippi Community College out of high school, where he ran into current Blazers' defensive coordinator Ashley Anders, who was coaching with Holmes (Miss.) Community College at the time.

"He did a good job [at Northeast Mississippi CC] and I knew that sucker had a good future in front of him when I watched him as a sophomore," Anders said.

A year under his belt in Hudspeth's system, Hall leads one of the most balanced Division II offenses in the nation.

"They've got most everybody back off the offense last year," Anders said. "A year of game experience means a lot."

The Lions average 455 yards per game, 261 yards through the air and 194 on the ground.

"Their balance is huge," Hatcher said. "You've got to be ready for everything. You just can't gear up for one phase."

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