One-hundred and fifty miles, give or take, separate Valdosta and Macon.
But this city has been good to Valdosta State football, as a place to play games or place to find players.
So much so, the school currently has at least two billboards along Interstate 75 on the north side of town, one proclaiming The Title Defense Starts Here.
And so it does, with the NCAA Division II national football champion Blazers taking on Fort Valley State at Henderson Stadium in the season opener Saturday for both teams.
The Wildcats are coming off a pretty good season, breaking a postseason drought with a trip to the Division II playoffs and a 21-6 loss to Lenoir-Rhyne in the first round.
But FVSU doesnt get many cracks at top-five teams.
We look at it as a challenge, said FVSU head coach Donald Pittman, unintentionally understating the task at hand. Thats the way the teams been taking it. They know what level were going to have to play on to compete with Valdosta.
Valdosta State owns the series, 17-3, with nine straight wins, and few of them have been close. The No. 20 Blazers won 62-14 early last season.
And the location hasnt much mattered. Valdosta State has beaten Fort Valley State in Macon 32-10 (in 2005) and 17-0 (in 1986).
The average score in the series is 32-10 in favor of the Blazers. It was competitive in the 40-24 home win to open the 2001 playoffs, two years after the Wildcats won back-to-back meetings, 24-13 and 20-14.
Wins over top-10 teams and national contenders are rare for the SIAC, as well, so FVSU may be playing for more than just a win to open the season. But they know the challenge ahead.
They dont make many mistakes, Pittman said. Weve been talking about not giving up the big pay on defense and not turning the ball over. Theyre very fast and physical.
Six Blazers, including running back Cedric ONeal from Dublin, were on the preseason All-Gulf South Conference team, four on offense and two on defense.
Valdosta State returns 12 starters from last years team.
They have a different team this year, Pittman said. But they play at a championship speed.
FVSUs defense is loaded, but the unit was lit up in last years game. The Wildcats scored first, but the Blazers then put 27 points on the board in less than nine minutes, with three scores coming on passes of 77, 36 and 12 yards.
The barrage of long touchdowns continued, starting with ONeals 57-yard run late in the first half. The Blazers second-half touchdowns came on two 50-yard passes, a 23-yard run and a 94-yard punt return.
Valdosta State racked up 249 yards on eight offensive touchdowns alone.
Weve just got to prevent big plays and not turn the ball over, FVSU defensive back Tracey White said. Fundamental stuff. Last year, we had a lot of turnovers, gave up a lot of big plays.
Valdosta State head coach David Dean, 54-17 entering his seventh season, sees a Wildcats team that has potential to be trouble, especially on one side of the line.
Theyre very athletic, and its always scary to line up against a lot of athletes like they have, he said. They can really hurt you. They put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and its going to be a challenge for us to move the ball.
White is ready for FVSU to face that challenge.
I just feel like we just came together as a team, he said. Not even as a defense as a whole, but we just came together.
Middle Georgia connections
QB 5 Kaleb Nobles of Fitzgerald
RB 4 Nick Davis of Mary Persons
RB 7 Cedric ONeal of Dublin
WR 38 R.J. Davis of Fitzgerald
DB 27 Brandon Brown of Northside
G 69 Alexander Brock of Vidalia,
DE 46 Tevin Davis of Mary Persons
DT 74 Andrew Lauritsen of Warner Robins
TE 84 Will Johnson of Robert Toombs
QB Brannon Cape of Howard
Fort Valley State
DB 6 JaBioas Glenn of Dooly County
TE 7 Renard Williams of Peach County
PK 12 Chris Ward of Southwest
RB 25 Jonquez Sanders of Taylor County
RB 26 Nikilous McDaniels of Northside
LB 40 Kelcey Lewis of Peach County
DB 42 Calvin Jackson of Southwest
DL 45 Cody Nash of Central
OL 71 Michael Brown of Northeast
OL 73 Brian Cornish of Warner Robins
WR Jarvis Hart of Westfield
DL 90 Bernard Little of Putnam County
DL 91 Dion Armstrong of Peach County
DL 98 Christopher Thomas of Macon County