October 19, 2017 10:08:48 AM
The tide had been building.
Members of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) had been waiting to see when -- or if -- someone would knock the East Mississippi Community College football team from the top perch.
EMCC won the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championships in 2013 and 2014. EMCC's title quest in 2015 ended after it was banned from the playoffs following a brawl at Mississippi Delta C.C. in the final game of the regular season.
Many MACJC members enjoyed the decision that banned EMCC from the postseason, even though Mississippi Delta C.C. isn't anyone's favorite child, either.
In 2016, things went back to normal. Even though Jones County Junior College beat EMCC in the season opener and cost it another title, the Lions played short-handed in that game. Once back at full speed, EMCC won its final 11 games and continued its domination.
While the wins mounted, the bond of the rest of the MACJC mounted. The Lions have played with a bull's eye for quite some time. One wondered if rival Itawamba C.C. would turn the trick. One wondered if historical seasons by Holmes C.C. and Northeast Mississippi C.C. would include a victory against EMCC.
Instead, Northwest Mississippi C.C. beat EMCC beat 61-38 Thursday night. The game was never in doubt. The Lions were battered and bruised. EMCC played timid. You hardly ever use that phrase with this program.
Whether it was a one-game aberration or harbinger of things to come is a column for another day. Today, we will focus on a new word for the MACJC vocabulary: parity.
The state championship is up for grabs. The national championship isn't out of the question for our state's champion, either.
Two weeks remain in the regular season. If EMCC beats Coahoma C.C. this week and Northwest Mississippi C.C. beats Northeast Mississippi C.C. next week, Northwest Mississippi C.C. will be No. 1 and EMCC will No. 2 from the North Division. In the South, Hinds C.C. will play Saturday at JCJC. The winner will earn the No. 1 seed, while the loser will be the No. 2.
The latest NJCAA national rankings have the four probable playoff opponents ranked in the top 10: Hinds C.C. is No. 4, Northwest Mississippi C.C. is No. 6, EMCC is No. 7, and JCJC is No. 10. Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. is No. 15.
It has been 12 years since all four state playoff participants were ranked. You have to go back more than 20 years to find the last time all four playoff teams were ranked in the top 10.
Most likely, that won't happen this year either, as Hinds could beat JCJC this week. Hinds C.C. and EMCC will play next week in a regular-season game in Raymond. The loser could fall from the top 10.
The four-team playoff should be outstanding. Northwest Mississippi C.C. has proven EMCC is vulnerable. As shell-shocked as EMCC had to feel when its 28-game North Division winning streak ended, there had to be some positive encouragement when the rankings came out. Coach Buddy Stephens has won three national championships in his first nine seasons as coach. The Lions are measured by championships. Anything less is a disappointment.
EMCC controlled its destiny when it got off the bus in Senatobia. However, the Lions learned Tuesday the mountain can still be climbed. They will need to win out and a little help from other teams. However, it is manageable.
Earlier this season, Northwest Mississippi C.C. fell from No. 5 to No. 19 when it lost to ICC.
The NJCAA rankings are two-thirds computer and one-third human, so the Lions really had no idea how bad their fall would be. However, the Lions' 23-point loss didn't appear to affect the computers.
EMCC will rack up its 23rd-straight victory against Coahoma C.C. on Saturday during Homecoming. The regular-season finale at Hinds C.C. will provide a chance to bolster the resume.
The playoffs also set up nicely. In the first round, EMCC would play at the Hinds-Jones winner. It could be a second-straight matchup against Hinds C.C. or a rematch against a team EMCC beat 47-34 in the season opener.
The following week, EMCC would automatically be on the road against Hinds C.C., JCJC, or Northwest Mississippi C.C. This means EMCC could finish with three games against teams above it in the national ranking.
Teams ranked above EMCC include No. 1 Iowa Western, No. 2 Arizona Western, No. 3 Trinity Valley, No. 4 Hinds C.C., No. 5 Blinn and No. 6 Northwest Mississippi C.C. The Lions will have all the style points necessary to jump some of those teams. Losses by anyone in that group will help the cause.
EMCC can't worry about computers. It has to fix the problems Northwest Mississippi C.C. exposed on defense. Hinds C.C. loves to throw the football and pass-happy teams have feasted on EMCC this season.
On offense, the line continues to struggle, so EMCC has to find ways to score on nights when the opponents' front four dominate the proceedings.
It will be a wide-open sprint to finish the season. Old-time fans of the MACJC -- myself included -- are happy to see a race. A competitive finish to the season has been an exception this decade.
EMCC is still a powerful horse in the race. However, it is now "a horse" and not "the horse."
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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