COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The Lions of East Mississippi Community College have been rewarded for their school-first national championship by being tabbed as the top-ranked junior college football team in the nation, according to the NJCAA Preseason Top 20 football poll released Wednesday.
Guided by fifth-year head coach Buddy Stephens, the EMCC Lions went undefeated a year ago on the gridiron, including eight victories over teams that were ranked among the NJCAA Top 20 during the course of the 2011 season. After capturing their second MACJC State/NJCAA Region 23 championship in three years, the Lions’ first-ever, 12-win season was capped by a 55-47 road victory over Arizona Western College in the El Toro Bowl played in Yuma, Ariz., for the 2011 NJCAA National Championship.
“It’s certainly a tremendous honor to become the first team in school history to be ranked No. 1 during the preseason,” said Stephens, who received national junior college football coach of the year honors a year ago by the American Community College Football Coaches Association and from the American Football Monthly coaches’ publication. “It does help to be able to control our own destiny if we’re able to take care of business on the field throughout the season. At the same time, it is a long season and we will face another daunting schedule again this year. It’s all you can ask for coming off a national championship season, so we’ll just try to do what we have to do in order to best represent the No. 1 ranking.”
An indicator as to the year-to-year strength of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges and NJCAA Region 23, the MACJC has landed four teams among the top 11 in this year’s NJCAA Preseason Top 20 national rankings. Following EMCC at No. 1, MACJC South Division powers Mississippi Gulf Coast and Hinds follow at No. 4 and No. 6, respectively, while MACJC North Division foe Northwest Mississippi is preseason ranked 11th nationally. Including national title game opponent Arizona Western and 2011 playoff opponents MGCCC and Hinds, half of East Mississippi’s dozen gridiron victories a season ago came against teams ranked among the top 11 in this year’s preseason poll.
The 2012 EMCC Lions will begin defense of their national championship by welcoming Pearl River Community College to Scooba for the season opener on Thursday, Aug. 30. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at EMCC’s Sullivan-Windham Field. Following a pair of road games against MACJC South Division opponents – Sept. 6 at East Central and Sept. 13 at Southwest Mississippi – East Mississippi will begin to seek the school’s fourth regular-season divisional title in five years by playing host to Mississippi Delta on Thursday, Sept. 20.
In alternating home and away games throughout their divisional slate, the Lions will kick off division road action at Coahoma on Thursday, Sept. 27, before entertaining Holmes during homecoming weekend (Oct. 6) on the Scooba campus. EMCC’s regular-season schedule winds down in October by sandwiching an Oct. 18 home date versus Northwest Mississippi between road outings against Northeast Mississippi (Oct. 11) and Itawamba (Oct. 27).
In his previous four seasons at the EMCC football helm, Stephens has put together a 36-8 composite record for a .818 winning percentage, including a 22-2 (.917) collective division mark with three MACJC North Division regular-season titles.