By Eric Tabor
Turn back the calendar to April 3, 2010, and the Albany Panthers were an underdog heading into the franchise’s inaugural game. Undaunted, the Panthers posted a season-opening upset that served as a springboard to their Southern Indoor Football League division championship.
On Saturday, Albany will once again be an underdog against the Columbus Lions. Could a victory spur another division championship season?
“I think it could,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said.
He noted that beating Columbus, the reigning SIFL champions, “gives you some maneuvering room as you move along to play in a tough Eastern Conference” in terms of being eligible for the postseason.
But he added that a loss to a division foe could ultimately hurt the Panthers’ playoff chances.
“Now you look to make the playoffs, and you go, OK, now I have to play six or seven teams at the top of our league [SIFL] and try to survive that and only lose three or four times,” said Davis.
“An 8-3 team is going to get you in the playoffs and a 7-4 probably won’t,” he added. “So in terms of making the playoffs, I think it’s difficult to have a Columbus on your schedule three times.”
Last season, Albany benefited from two Lion turnovers that led to a Panthers’ 54-41 victory.
Things could be much tougher this time around.
The Lions boast MVP candidate in quarterback Chris McCoy. Columbus also has the all-time indoor football interception leader in fleet-footed defensive back Damian Daniels.
Davis said that maintaining possession will be the best way to slow down Columbus’ offense.
“They are a pretty quick-strike team, even though they run the ball great,” he said. “I mean they’ll just pump fake and throw deep on you. And Anthony Merritt is as good a wideout as there is in the league. They go deep to him three or four times. So the key is not to be on the field too much.”
But the Lions realize that they must also keep Albany’s offense in check.
Quarterback Cecil Lester (reigning SIFL MVP), offensive tight-end Aaron Wheeler, and do-everything wideout Antwone Savage lead a unit that returns six starters from last season.
C.J. Washington will arguably be the best athlete on the field Saturday night. The kick returner and wide receiver is also recognized as Davis’ newest, most talented player since the Panthers franchise was started.
Washington returned a kickoff for a touchdown and caught four passes for 68 yards in Albany’s 58-45 win over the Carolina Speed.
Listening to Davis this week, one gets the sense that beating Columbus will be an extremely tough task. He marveled over the Lion’s mammoth offensive line, talented running back, and play making defenders.
“I think without question, I can go on record and say this would be the best team that we’ll play all year,” Davis said of a Lions team that returns nine starters from last season’s 10-3 league championship season. “I mean they are deep and talented and a tremendous challenge for us.”
Tickets are on sale for this mega battle; kickoff at the Albany Civic Center is at 7:30 p.m.
Defensive back Corey Rue and his teammates will have their hands full Saturday in the Albany Panthers’ battle against defending league champion Columbus at the Albany Civic Center. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.