FLORENCE — As the Valdosta State players trudged off the field at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium on Sept. 22, it felt like a black cloud was descending over them.
A Blazers team that had such high expectations was dealt a crushing 39-28 Gulf South Conference home loss to West Alabama and saw its record fall to 2-2.
All of a sudden, a team that had a preseason No. 8 national ranking and national championship aspirations looked like it was going nowhere fast. But as the West Alabama players celebrated a convicning victory on Valdosta's home field, junior reciever Gerald Ford called his teammates together and delivered what quarterback Cayden Cochran called a "gut check".
"West Alabama (players) were in the middle of the field excited and our fans and players were going off disappointed," Cochran said. "Gerald called the whole team together on the field and said you're either going to come back locked in or this season is going to get even more disappointing. He looked us all in the eye and said if you're not with me get out, but if you are, let's put this behind us and move forward."
The team took Ford's challenge to heart, and finished the season on a 10-game winning streak, which included a 49-21 second-round playoff win over that same West Alabama team.
"When you coach in titletown USA and you're 2-2, there's always a cloud around you," Valdosta State coach David Dean said. "That loss really woke us up, and at that point we realized we are a lot better team that what we were playing like. When I walked into the locker room after that game I said let's get a chance to play (West Alabama) again and that's what they did."
Cochran said the change in the team was almost immediate.
"It started the next day at weightlifting," Cochran said. "Every day we got stronger and grew as a team."
That's not to say there weren't potential roadblocks along the way. Being forced to basically win out in order to make the playoffs, Valdosta had to battle for just about every victory down the stretch.
The Blazers almost blew a 24-point lead to North Alabama before hanging on to win 24-21 on Oct. 13. One week later, Valdosta scored three straight touchdowns to overcame a late third-quarter deficit to Delta State and win 59-41.
Two weeks after that it took a touchdown with 37 seconds remaining to beat Texas A&M Kingsville 38-31 and clinch the top seed in Super Region II.
The Blazers then faced at least a nine point deficit in each of its first three playoff games before coming back to take control in the second half. Saturday's championship contest was the first time the Blazers had not trailed in a game since Oct. 25 against Shorter.
"We've faced adversity all year long," Dean said. "Our kids never panic. They always feel like they are in the game. That says a lot about these kids. They believe in what we're doing."
Valdosta State, which was only ranked No. 17 in the final regular season poll, became the lowest ranked team to ever win the national championship. But Cochran said he knows the secret behind the Blazers' never say die success.
"I've been on past teams where I thought we had team unity, but I've never seen anything more tight knit than these guys," Cochran said. "There's just something magical that you could see in week five and week six. It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm never going to forget this team."