Columbus had to win its last four games in 2014 for a shot at the No. 4 seed in the Region 2-6A playoffs. The Falcons lost to Warren Central in their final regular season matchup, and their spot in the postseason was given to Northwest Rankin.
A lot has changed in the past 365 days. Columbus jumped into the Super 10 rankings at No. 9 for the first time following a 46-20 win over Olive Branch last week. After compiling a 5-0 record in region play, the Falcons will play top-ranked South Panola on Friday for the Region 1-6A title.
What a difference a year makes.
“Honestly, if you would have told me that we would be getting ready to play South Panola for the district championship last year when I took this job, I probably would have told you that you were crazy,” Falcons coach Randal Montgomery said.
The Falcons’ two losses this season came to Noxubee County and West Point in non-region play. Columbus (7-2, 5-0) has beaten its last four opponents by double figures behind a rushing attack that averages 269.9 yards per game. Kendre Connor returns to the backfield from injury to create a two-headed monster with four-star running back Kylin Hill, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in six consecutive games.
Taking away the Falcons’ offensive strength is what South Panola (9-0, 5-0) excels at defensively. Last week, the Tigers held Southaven to 78 yards of total offense in a 41-3 win. Prior to that, South Panola shut out Tupelo 35-0. The Tigers haven’t allowed more than a touchdown in their last three outings and have outscored their opponents 334-132 in 2015.
“We know defensively they’re a great team. They’re going to stop the run and that’s what we like to do,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to find ways to get the ball down the field and maybe loosen up the run box a little bit.”
One way to spread things out is by using Hill as a slot receiver. The 5-foot-11, 208-pounder has been a big asset for Falcons quarterback C.J. Gholar in the passing game and leads his team in rushing (1,149 yards and nine TDs) and receiving (335 yards and three TDs).
“Having Kendre back allows us to do a couple of different things with Kylin,” he said. “He gives us a little more versatility on offense.”
South Panola also relies on the run as the catalyst for its offense by averaging more than two rushing touchdowns per game. The Tigers had seven different players carry the ball last week to set up a passing attack. Senior quarterback Tyler Pogue is coming off his best outing of the season when he completed 11 of 14 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers.
“If you’re just looking for 11, then they’ve got plenty of other guys that will take advantage of you,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got our hands full over there and the kids know it’s a tall task, but we’re going to go over there and give it our best shot.”
The magnitude of this week isn’t lost on the Falcons, nor what’s at stake. If Columbus wins, it not only earns the No. 1 seed in the playoffs but halts the state’s longest winning streak at 24.
With their postseason plans all but finalized, Columbus’ biggest test is also one Montgomery believes will help his team rise to another level: In order to be the best, you need to play the best and beat the best.
“It would be huge for this program because we never had a big time win like that in decades,” Hill said. “It would put us on the map.”
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.