• Columbia quarterback Jordan Smith throws a pass during practice on Aug. 1 (ERIC JACKSON)/Lake City Reporter).
    Columbia quarterback Jordan Smith throws a pass during practice on Aug. 1 (ERIC JACKSON)/Lake City Reporter).

PREP FOOTBALL: Columbia locked in, ready for IMG Academy

Tigers face touted program in preseason classic.

In an unexpected turn of events last week, Columbia went from possibly not having a preseason classic to scheduling one of the country's best programs.

It happened quickly – and without hesitation, Columbia accepted an offer to play IMG Academy.

On Friday, the Tigers travel to Bradenton for the anticipated exhibition match versus national powerhouse IMG Academy. Many teams would've shied away from facing an elite group that has won its last 37 straight games, but not the Tigers. 

They're welcoming the competition, ready to see where they stand amongst top-tier talent.

"It's Columbia, we made that way," quarterback Jordan Smith said. "Growing up together, tough, playing in the backyard, we just born to do this. Columbia strong."

Columbia surely will be tested in its first contest of the season. IMG Academy, a nationally-ranked team, features 11 players rated four stars or better in the 2019 class alone. The underdog Tigers hope to come out with a confidence-boosting victory, one that would certainly catapult Columbia into the regular season.

While there's plenty of hype surrounding the contest, head coach Brian Allen says the team has prepared for Friday night's game like any other preseason classic.

"From the time we play a spring game to the time we play a classic, it's the same," the eighth-year coach said. "I'm trying to see where we are as a football team. You look at the spring game, and it's what do we have to work on through the summer to be better. It's the same thing with this classic – what do we need to work on after this week to win 10 ballgames, win a district championship, be in the playoffs and be 100 percent of the team we're going to be in November."

It's been a busy offseason at Columbia as several players have received college offers in the last few months. Columbia is ready to field sought-after recruits of its own – including four-star wide receiver TJ Jones – so championship talk around town continues to grow, with fans convinced this group can reach the title game.

Anticipation for this season seems to rise with every passing day.

The Tigers' first game of the season, however, may be a humbling one.

"There's been a lot of buzz to who we are as a football team," Allen said about his team's preseason accolades. "Potential isn't anything until it's turned into something. And that's what we're going to see on Friday night, how we operate our system, offensively, defensively and on specials teams. Obviously, there's an added incentive, with an opportunity to go against guys who are (considered) elite."

Loaded with a star-studded receiving core and stout defense, Columbia's team is already resembling the 2015 team which reached the state semifinal round. That group was defeated by (eventual) state runner-up Viera, a talented team that was defeated 56-20 by one of the best programs (Allen) in Texas earlier that year. Allen hopes this contest could be a similar springboard into the season for his team.

"You know good football players when you see them, they look the same," Allen added. "I want to see my guys go and compete. That's the number one thing on my expectation sheet: I want us to compete all night. (We) got an opportunity to go do that, and as a staff, we have an opportunity to see where we are (and) to make adjustments to get ready for Gainesville Thursday."

NO UMSTEAD: Columbia coach Brian Allen has ruled out middle linebacker Ethan Umstead for Friday's preseason classic. Umstead, who led the team in tackles last season, is still recovering from a left ankle fracture. The standout senior is slated to be ready for the season opener at Gainesville on Aug. 23.

LIVE STREAM: Columbia's preseason matchup against IMG Academy starts at 7 p.m.  and will be live streamed at facebook.com/IMGAcademy. 

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