Last year, ASU quarterback Stanley Jennings and the Rams doubled up Division I Savannah State, 28-14, but the Tigers enter today’s rematch in Macon a much-improved team. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MACON -- This may not be the same ol' Savannah State football team.
You know, the team that hasn't had a winning season in 13 years, hasn't beaten Albany State in 20 years and is winless in six games against ASU coach Mike White?
No, this year's Savannah State Tigers might be something completely different.
And ASU had better be ready, or it could go from an 11-1 season in 2010 to 0-1 to start 2011.
"They have struggled so bad, they want to get off to a good start," White said of the season-opening matchup. "I really think they will come at us and be aggressive."
The long time rivals, who are meeting for the 61st time, kick off their seasons at 5 p.m. today in Macon in the Music City Classic. Historically, the Rams have owned the series, winning 42 of 60 games in the 80-year-old rivalry. The Rams enter the season ranked in the Top 10 of the Division II AFCA Coaches' Poll, while the Division I Tigers are picked to finish last in their first season in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
So this should be another season-opening blowout by Albany State, right?
No so fast, Savannah State coach Steve Davenport said this week.
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WHO: Albany State (0-0) vs. Savannah State (0-0).
WHAT: Music City Classic, 61st meeting between longtime rivals.
WHEN: 5 p.m. today.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
ON THE WEB: Follow game @ twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
"I'm not coming to get my head beat in," Davenport told The Herald in a phone interview Thursday. "I'm going to get on that bus with those kids with 100 percent confidence to win the game. That's the only way you can have success, and we've been preaching that all year."
Davenport, the former running backs coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, took over the Savannah State program Jan. 7 and has brought a whole new attitude to the team, even boldly casting a vote for them to win the MEAC.
One reason Davenport is so confident about this season is because of his 16 returning starters -- nine on defense and seven on offense. And then there's senior Justin Babb, SSU's star running back who led the team in rushing in 2008 and 2009 but was given a medical redshirt last year because of a season-ending hamstring injury in the third game of the season.
Babb, who is 5-foot-9 and 181 pounds, is nicknamed "Champ" and will be one of the most talented running backs Albany State faces this season.
"For Albany State to have a good football season in 2011, they are going to have to be a good team against the run," White said. "And this is a good running back, so this is going to say a lot about who we are and what kind of year we are going to have."
Davenport agreed that his running game will be crucial today.
"We are going to put a heavy load on Babb," Davenport said. "He's not a big guy, and he's not a powerful running back. He's just shifty."
The Rams have three brand new starters at linebacker and are littered with inexperience throughout the rest of the defense. But senior defensive lineman Antorio Wells said he isn't worried about stopping Babb -- or any other runner the Tigers throw at them.
"I am confident in our run defense," Wells said. "Our pass defense needs to catch up to our run defense, but our run defense is looking good. Our defensive line is a big part, but our linebackers have been the biggest part. It's been about them getting in the film room and getting into the play book and studying. At the end of the day, that's what matters and trumps everything."
ASU's running game has bounced back after expected starters Kareem Hess and Jamaris Cooper went down with serious preseason injuries. Senior Darryl Carey and junior transfer Nathan Hoyte have picked up the slack in the backfield, and White said it's his running game he is most confident about going into today's matchup.
"On offense, I'm confident we should be able to run the ball," said White, whose Rams defeated Savannah State last season, 28-14, in the "Rumble in the Swamp" in Waycross. "I'm worried that maybe later on as the game goes on our conditioning plays in, but early I think we will do a good job running the football."
The Rams shouldn't be too shabby throwing the ball, either. Reigning SIAC MVP Stanley Jennings is back at quarterback and will look for big days from his key receivers, Octavius Staton, Orion Ponder, Janell Jones and Ronnie Tubbs. Jennings said the biggest key against Savannah State will be protecting the ball.
"As an offense, we need to limit our mistakes. For me, I need to take what the defense gives me. Talent-wise we aren't worried about that. We can stick with them," Jennings said. "I am confident in my offensive line. (During Wednesday's practice), I had a lot of time in the pocket, and they are getting better and better each day at picking up the blitz. I am pretty excited about the O-line."
All eyes will be on Jennings, who has the capability to single-handedly march the Rams down the field with his elusiveness in the pocket.
"I know how good Stanley is," Davenport said. "I recruited him at Alabama-Birmingham, but I didn't pull the trigger on him. You have to cage him. He may be one of the athletes who gets better when the play breaks down."
Jennings, White and the entire ASU program are aware of the success the Rams have had on the field against Savannah State in the past century. And for White, that means just one thing today.
"That means we have to win this year," he said. "They can win next year, (but) we have to have it this year."