ASU's defensive end Antorio Wells
COLUMBUS -- It's that time of year when champions thrive, when legends are born and when big players step up in big games with bigger-than-life pressure on their shoulders.
And ASU coach Mike White knows there has never been more pressure on his team than right now with the Rams are on the cusp of making the Division II playoffs and one win away from advancing to the first-ever SIAC Championship game as they take the field in today's 22nd annual Fountain City Classic in Columbus against Fort Valley State.
"The pressure has been building ever since our loss to Lane," said White, whose Rams (7-2, 5-1) have won three in a row since the loss to the Dragons on Oct. 8. "We took (the loss) in a positive way, because we knew if we continued to win then each game would be more important, but we could still stay in the driver's seat."
Want To Go, Watch or Listen?
WHO: Fort Valley St. (2-7, 2-4 SIAC) at Albany State (7-2, 5-1 SIAC).
WHAT: 22nd annual Fountain City Classic.
WHEN: 2 p.m. today.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
ONLINE: Live updates at: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
White than added: "And that's what we've done, and there's more pressure each week."
A win would clinch an SIAC East Division title for the No. 22 nationally ranked Rams, who would then advance to the SIAC Championship game in Atlanta on Nov. 12 to face West Division champ Miles.
The Rams, however, will need wins in both of those games to have a chance to squeak into the playoffs, which they currently wouldn't qualify for if the season ended today. In the latest Super Region Two poll, the Rams are ranked No. 7 -- one away from the Top 6 spots that qualify for the D-II postseason.
"Basically this is already the playoffs for us. Each game is win or go home," ASU running back Nathan Hoyte said matter-of-factly after Wednesday's practice.
The Rams need a win to keep alive their hopes of an eighth straight playoff appearance. Four-year senior defensive lineman Antorio Wells has been to the Division II playoffs in each of his seasons, and he knows what is at stake today.
"There's a lot on the line (today), and we have to go in and fight to the end," Wells said. "We just don't want to say what would happen if we don't."
The Rams aren't talking about what would happen if they lose -- they're only thinking how sweet a victory would taste in the rivalry that is separated by less than 100 miles.
"(A win) would feel great, but it will be short-lived," Hoyte said. "We know we will then have to prepare for the championship game, and then win that to get in the playoffs. Really, it's all business until we reach our final goal."
The Wildcats, who own a 32-29-3 record against the Rams in the 66-year history of the rivalry, enter the game with an uncharacteristic 2-7 overall record. But their season could be salvaged with a victory against Albany State.
"The rivalry is real intense, and we don't want to lose to them as bad as they don't want to lose to us," Wells said. "It's one of those games that would make the season for them even though they would (end with a losing record). If they beat us, it's alright over there."
Southwest Georgia has been buzzing about the game all season, White said.
"When it comes down to Fort Valley, they hear (about the rivalry) all day. From other students, from their instructors. They hear it from people at the convenient store. They here it all day," White said. "It's unlike any other atmosphere, because you have two home teams there. Two crowds there.
"There is no home-side advantage. It's hard to get into the stadium. You need an escort to get in there. It's unlike any other game we play."
Though win-loss records can be thrown out the window in rivalry games like these, you don't have to look very hard to find some Wildcat weaknesses that ASU can take advantage of.
Most notably, there is Fort Valley's defense, which is ranked last in the conference, allowing 388 yards per game. The Wildcats allow a staggering 206 rushing yards per game -- a number that rose by 42 yards when FVSU allowed 536 rushing yards to Morehouse last week and an NCAA Division II single-game record 351 yards to Maroon Tigers running back David Carter.
"I may have seen those numbers," Hoyte, ASU's starting running back, said with a smile. "But I know Fort Valley is going to play us intense."
ASU offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner acknowledged that the Rams won't rely on the run as heavily as Morehouse did last week, but he said the Rams' running backs could be poised for a big game.
"I think we have big-game backs. I think our backs are ready to go, and I think they will be playing even harder (with the pressure)," said Joyner, who added that Rams quarterback Stanley Jennings has played well under pressure this season.
With the season on the line, White said his "Dirty Blue" defense will be ready, too.
"No matter the records, we know they are coming at us," White said. "The guys recognize that this isn't just a quiz, this is a big test that is coming up."
Struggling Wildcats on facing potentially playoff-bound Rams: Prepare for a dog fight -- because we've got nothing to lose:
COLUMBUS -- At first glance, it appears Albany State's football team with a 7-2 record shouldn't have much trouble against Fort Valley State, which enters in today's 22nd annual Fountain City Classic a lowly 2-7.
Ask folks at Stillman College about that.
Just last month, Fort Valley State was 1-6 and hosted to a 6-1 Stillman team. At the finish, Fort Valley State had a homecoming victory by an astonishing 52-3 score.
"Everything clicked for us that day," coach Donald Pittman said.
He hopes it does again at 2 p.m. when his Wildcats clash with the Rams at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium.
A sellout crowd of 15,000 is expected.
Pittman's team has no chance at playoff action so, he said, "We've got one last time to get it right."
At a media luncheon Tuesday, Pittman, once an assistant coach at Albany State, drew laughs from the audience when he said of Albany State Coach Mike White, "I know he won't kick me when I'm down."
Asked later about that statement, Pittman smiled and remarked, "Yes (actually), he will."
Excited about his first chance to play in the Fountain City Classic is Fort Valley State freshman defensive lineman Tavarus Talley.
"It exciting to get back home," said Talley, before adding he feels the Wildcats can whip the Rams. "We're not intimidated. We're coming at them hard."
Albany State senior linebacker Bruce Ryles, a former Kendrick High star, expects hard hitting from Fort Valley State similar to last season when his team won just 12-7.
"Last year was sure a tough one," Ryles said,
But don't expect a defensive battle this time around.
The game should be high scoring. Albany State leads the SIAC in scoring offense averaging 34.3 points per game and Fort Valley State is fourth, averaging 23.7 points. In total offense, Albany State is third with 371.6 yards per game and Fort Valley State is fourth at 303.4.
At the same time, neither ranks high on defense in the conference. Albany State is sixth in scoring defense with a 24.1 points per game average and Fort Valley State is ninth at 27.4. In total defense, Albany State ranks eighth giving up 325 yards per game and Fort Valley State is 10th at 388.
-- Larry Gierer/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer