PEACH STATE PIGSKIN PREVIEW: Valdosta State coach excited to open season vs. Albany State

The Rams and Blazers will open the 2014 season on Sept. 6

David Dean

David Dean

MACON — Two years ago, Valdosta State football coach David Dean stood in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and talked about his desire to resume a rivalry with Albany State

He’s finally getting his wish — and on Tuesday he said the atmosphere for this year’s season opener between the two South Georgia Division II programs will be intense.

“We always enjoy playing them because of the crowd and the intensity that goes along with that game,” he said. “For us being so close, it’s easy for both fan bases to be able to travel. It’s always a packed house, and that’s good for our guys to be able to play in that type of atmosphere and pressure.”

The Rams and Blazers will open their seasons Sept. 6 at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium in Valdosta, renewing a rivalry game that has been played just once in the past six years.

The only game during that six-year span between the schools was played in 2011 when the visiting Blazers, who were ranked 12th in the nation, used a last-minute field goal to beat No. 6 Albany State, 30-27, in a thriller.

Albany State coach Mike White didn’t attend Tuesday’s Peach State Pigskin Classic — an annual event that features representatives from each of Georgia’s 18 collegiate football programs — but said later in a phone interview that the opener will be exciting, simply because it’s the first game after a 10-month layoff.

“Whoever that opponent is, you are going to be excited,” said White, who is entering his 15th season as head coach of the Rams. “But quite naturally, the proximity between both schools adds a lot to it.”

Albany State was the only team in the state not represented Tuesday morning, but White said a hectic schedule this week that includes his annual youth football camp and an ASU golf fundraiser has the Rams “working like the devil to make those successful so we can help raise some money.”

Even without the Rams present, they were a common topic of conversation among the SIAC programs in attendance.

“Albany State is definitely the team in the East (Division) that you have to beat to get to the championship,” Clark Atlanta coach Kevin Weston said. “They have done a great job down there and have had tremendous success, and they have a great tradition going.”

Morehouse coach Rich Freeman said ASU, which struggled early in 2013 but closed the season with five straight victories to win the SIAC championship, will be his preseason pick to win the East Division.

“I am going to vote for them to be the front-runner on our side,” Freeman said. “And it’s because of (quarterback) Frank Rivers, and as long as Mike White is there they are going to play good defense. With a good quarterback and solid defense, you have a chance to really make some noise.”

Rivers, who transferred to ASU from Division I Grambling State a year ago and emerged as a standout quarterback and the SIAC’s Newcomer of the Year, is one of several leaders returning for the Rams. Leading receiver and Camilla native Jessie Atkins is back, as are running backs Adrian Alexander, Phillip Moore and Jarvis Small; linebacker and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield; offensive lineman and team captain Victor Moli; and defensive lineman and former Mitchell County standout Grover Stewart.

The Rams finished 6-4 the last two seasons and missed the Division II playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in a decade, but White said the expectation of SIAC supremacy hasn’t left.

“Faces change, but expectations don’t,” White said. “Right now, you are trying to get yourself ready to play a really good (Valdosta State) football team at the beginning of the season. You just have to be ready to play when it’s time.”

In the past two years, the Rams have struggled out of the gate. Last season started with four losses in their first five games before they reeled off five straight victories, and in 2012 they began the season 2-3 before finding their groove late.

Dean said he is glad to catch the Rams early.

“It seems like they always find a way at the end of the year to get better, and that’s probably one positive for us because we get to play them early in the year,” said Dean, whose Blazers own a 14-1 head-to-head record against the Rams. “(White) does a great job of getting those guys prepared, and they are always a scary bunch when you face them in the playoffs. They are usually playing their best football around the eighth or ninth week of the season.

“We are excited about getting them back on our schedule. It’s always a tough football game. They are a physical team and are well coached. It’s always a great opener for us because it’s a great test right off the bat.”