Although there are dozens upon dozens of teams around the state that would love to be headed to the playoffs on Saturday like Columbia's football team is, the Cougars are not exactly in an enviable position this postseason.
Saturday's showdown against Bridgewater Raritan is not only about the Cougars getting a win and moving on in the playoffs. No, Saturday's first round contest is hugely important as far as the Cougars taking another step forward as a program and as far as the rest of the state giving them credit for having two good, if not great seasons.
Last year's 8-2 campaign was marred by a 41-6 beat down on the road against Westfield in the first round of the playoffs. A loss like that on Saturday will have all of the nay-sayers and all of I told you soers pointing at a weak conference schedule for a second straight season and calling fraud on Columbia's 8-0 record.
Of course this time around, the locals have a bit more momentum on their side.
"We had kind of peaked at the end of last year, and then we got that first round draw," said Columbia head coach Dave Curtin. "We haven't peaked yet because we just haven't played that perfect game."
The coaches and players are saying the right things about public perception: "we can only play who 's on the schedule," "we can't be worried about what everyone else thinks of us. We have to worry about what we think of us," etc.
But how could they not be upset? How could they not want to tell everyone to just shut it? How could they not want to prove everyone wrong? How could it not be on their minds?
They know they're a big school in the middle division. They know they're in a division which has four pretty good teams and four really bad ones. But, just in case all of the critics have forgotten, winning is not a tradition in Columbia football yet. You don't erase years of losing with two good seasons. There was a reason they were put into the Liberty Division, in fact, it's one of the main reasons why the Super Essex Conference was formed: to help more teams be more successful.
The Cougars were put into the Liberty Division so they'd have a decent opportunity to recover from decades of losing and to be given a new chance to have a successful program. Now everyone wants to criticize Columbia for doing exactly what it was set up to do? These are the same people that picked the Cougars to finish near the bottom of the division for the last two seasons.
"We can't really affect any of that," McGriff said. "We just get the schedule in the summer and we play who is on the schedule."
So the bottom line is this: If Columbia loses big on Saturday, they'll be attacked as the worst 8-1 team of all time. If they lose in a close game, everyone will say the Cougars are improving, but their record was obviously a bi-product of their schedule. But if they win…
All of the sudden, the Cougars are a game away from a state championship appearance and the critics will have giant feet to pull out of their mouths.
All of the sudden their undefeated record is legit and maybe last year's team was good too, but just ran into a tough Westfield squad. Winning and success are the remedies for just about everything in life and a win on Saturday will change the state's perception of the Red and Black boys at The Hill.
But how realistic are Columbia's chances for getting a win against Bridgewater-Raritan?
First the good news.
Columbia hasn't lost at home since the 2008 season, and Saturday's playoff game is at The Hill. Over the past two years, the boys have developed a nice home field advantage, allowing just 5.4 points per game at home during that span, while scoring 28.8. They are a much better team at home. It also helps that Bridgewater is 2-3 on the road this season.
"Going into Westfield last year was a huge disadvantage. The whole team had never been in an atmosphere like that," McGriff said.
Columbia's running game, while it's not quite as strong as it was a year ago, is still very formidable - they probably have the best tailback in the division. Cougar running back Denzel Nieves is on the brink of breaking the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career, and it would be the first time for any Cougar football player over the last eight seasons. He's not the biggest running back in the county or state, but he's so slippery, so quick and so difficult to tackle that it would be hard to imagine him being completely shutdown, especially at home.
The play of Columbia's defense has been downright nasty this fall. They've given up just 53 points this season and have allowed a ridiculous 26 points over the last five games. They're averaging four sacks per contest and have been outstanding against the run. Bridgewater is a run dominant team (just two touchdown passes this season) and Columbia has dominated those types of teams this year.
"Matt McGriff is always the steady guy [on defense] and Daryl Jones has made some big plays and has really complemented matt," Curtin said.
Lastly, what will make Columbia most dangerous this postseason is the play of quarterback Demetrius Cooper, who began the season on the bench. A year ago, Cooper threw four touchdown passes and was picked off nine times. Columbia's passing attack was largely non-existent, and teams could gear up for Nieves, Hadrian Matthews and D.J. Roberts coming out of the backfield.
Now, with Cooper sporting 10 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, Columbia's passing attack is something to be concerned with. Cooper has gone from completing 42 percent of his passes to 62 percent. He has gone from a quarterback you were worried about completing two or three first downs per game to a guy who can throw two or three touchdowns per game.
"I am kind of surprised with that," McGriff said of Cooper's stats. "He was a run first quarterback before, now he has matured and can stay in the pocket and hit different receivers."
"He got his second chance, number one, and he realized that if he didn't perform, we weren't going to win," Curtin said of Cooper's emergence.
Now for the bad news.
The Bridgewater-Raritan Panthers, who enter with a 6-3 record, play in a far, far more difficult conference. The West-A Division of the Mid-39 Conference is much deeper the SEC Liberty - that's not an opinion, that's a fact. The combined records of Bridgewater's opponents is 44-33, for a .571 winning percentage - they've played five playoff teams. Columbia's is 27-30, for a .470 winning percentage, and the Cougars have played three playoff teams. To add to it, Bridgewater is the only team this season to defeat the top seeded Hunterdon Central boys.
Five of the teams in North II Group 4 are all in the West A Division, meaning that they've all beaten up on each other and they all have tons of film on each other. Columbia is a relative unknown, but remember that Westfield is in the West A Division and manhandled the Cougars last postseason. It remains to be seen whether the unfamiliarity will be a bonus or a detriment.
"We have a team that not a lot of people know anything about," Curtin said.
The Panthers have gotten great play from its special teams unit all season long. Blocked punts and a number of turnovers on special teams have led to either points, or good field position consistently this fall for Bridgewater. Also, they kick field goals. Tyler Barbarich has made kicks from as far as 43 yards out this season, so if Columbia lets them into or near the red zone, you can bank on Bridgewater putting three points on the board.
In the end, the teams appear to be well matched and we'll see just how much the difference in their strength of schedules actually matters, or how much Columbia's home field advantage actually helps. Like many postseason games, there will likely be a few plays here and there that decide it.
"Me personally, I'm confident," McGriff said. "My job now and the rest of the captains is to get the other guys feeling confident."
No matter the result, the reputation of Columbia will be affected perhaps more than any other playoff team in the state - and that may be what ends up helping them most. Two years ago, they were picked to finish last in the division, they were second. This season, everyone said they lost too many seniors and they were picked to finish near the bottom - they won the division.
The point is that it seems like the Cougar boys like to prove people wrong. They'll have their chance to shut everyone up again on Saturday. A win legitimizes what the Cougar have done over the last two seasons, a loss - well it's just same ole Columbia then.