North Alabama football switches non-conference opponents

Chase Glover, Managing Editor

Aug., 19 the North Alabama football team made its final changes to their new four game non-conference schedule for the 2020 season. This list includes Liberty, Jacksonville State, Southern Miss and BYU.

Previously, UNA had Western Illinois, Jacksonville State, Virginia Tech, UT-Chattanooga and BYU; JSU and BYU are the only two teams that are still on the slate for the upcoming season. The Lions will not start their season until Oct., unlike other college football teams across the nation who are starting in early-to-mid Sept.

The Big South Conference, in which North Alabama competes, postponed their season until the spring which led to UNA choosing a four-game non-conference schedule. Western Illinois decided to not play during the fall, while Virginia Tech only is allowed to play one non-conference opponent through the ACC in which they chose Liberty, and UT-Chattanooga will only play a one game schedule in the spring.

North Alabama can play this fall and even has the chance to play in the spring with the Big South if everything gets off the ground for the spring play proposal.

The NCAA has come out and even given a ‘free year’ to all student-athletes allowing this year to not count towards their eligibility. This means seniors could even come back and play another season, no matter how many games they play or do not play through the fall or spring.

“Everyone across the country is figuring that out right now, who and what you can play,” says Head Coach Chris Willis. “Our guys want to play, we want to play but we needed a schedule that would work and would be safe enough for us to get out there.”

As stated, the Lions will not compete on the field until Oct. Their first game comes against Liberty which will be played Oct., 3 followed by Jacksonville State on the 17. UNA will then play their final two games in Nov., against Southern Miss on the 7 and BYU on the 21. 

North Alabama will have extensive bye weeks leading up to each of their games with at least two weeks to prepare for each opponent. 

“We talked to the NCAA and asked ourselves, ‘Why play the month of September?’,” Willis said. “Why not let some teams play before us and let’s see if all of this gets off the ground and goes. The SEC starts the week before us, we are using that as a gauge; if all those conferences kick off and get going, we think come October 3rd we will be good to go.”

North Alabama is one of the few FCS level teams that is pursuing a fall football schedule. In this schedule, UNA will only have one home game which will be Jacksonville State while they play all of their FBS opponents on the road.

The late start for UNA can also benefit many players as well. Throughout the summer, the NCAA gave regulations on when summer workouts, practices, scrimmages and then games were going to be allowed to happen.

Player progression comes to the forefront of attention for the coaching staff but to the players as well. Allowing them more time to workout and practice benefits them when they will head to Liberty for the start of their season.

“I definitely feel like we have gotten in better shape over the summer,” says senior defensive back K.J. Smith. “The conditioning program has been tough, for sure but I think we have gotten better and are in better shape. The practices, the individuals, the workouts we have been doing, it has been getting us back into that football mode.”

Changing from a full 11-game schedule with conference and non-conference opponents to only a four-game slate caught some players off guard. However, the NCAA ruling with no eligibility being lost helps keep some seniors mind at bay about this season.

“It is definitely a shocker for sure,” Smith said. “The rule that came out, saying that this year won’t count towards [our] eligibility means that it [senior year] won’t really be hurt. I look at these four games more so to get more film against bigger schools and see where I stand against them playing ability wise.”

After the NCAA ruling of free eligibility, it has led some seniors to consider sticking around for an extra year to potentially boost their stock for the NFL Draft. However, some players are testing the waters and see these four games as a chance to get their name out there to potentially make it to the next level.

Since the Lions are playing three of their four games against FBS level teams, they have a chance to make national television appearances. Fans wanting to soak in as much sports action as possible, may have them watching any game that comes across their television set. As we saw on opening night of the college football season that pitted Central Arkansas and Austin Peay against each other, who are both FCS teams, led to a multitude of fans to watch the game.

“I have thought about it [leaving for the draft],” Smith said. “I haven’t come to a decision yet, it ultimately comes down to how well I do in these four games. If I go out there and kill it these four games, then I am just going to call it. I am gonna call it quits and try it [the draft].”

These four games are extremely significant to Willis and his players, some stem from the television time they would receive, others have a reason that these games might hit closer to home.

Ron Thompson, a senior running back, committed to UNA before the 2019 season and transferred in from Pearl River Community College. Thompson comes from Bassfield, MS where he played junior college level football before coming to the Lions. He has a big circle around a certain game this year on the schedule.

“It’s Southern Miss,” Thompson said. “I get to go back home, I still have something to prove. I get to go back home, my hometown, and get to play against my hometown team.”

Losing Virginia Tech and other teams comes as a blow for the players because of the spotlight or attention they would receive by playing on a big stage. However, one of the biggest blows and reasons North Alabama is still trying to compete this fall comes through the financial revenue for playing these big name teams.

“I don’t know the exact dollar amount but [Virginia Tech] was around $420,000 or $425,000,” Willis said. “I want to say BYU is close to Virginia Tech, it is close to $425,000 or $450,000, Southern Miss and Liberty are both around $300,000 or $325,000.”

By adding these other teams, North Alabama will benefit greatly from these new FBS teams on the schedule. This allows them to make up for losing the UT-Chattanooga and Virginia Tech games that were on the previous schedule.

Big South Conference will allow teams to play a non-conference schedule along with the conference schedule the Big South is proposing for the spring. This will allow the Lions to play their full season like they were supposed to but will play at two separate times.

“I don’t know what kind of model the [Big South] has put together,” Willis said. “I don’t know any and there aren’t many college coaches that think [spring football] will get off the ground. I am not a fan of spring football, you are asking kids to play a 7 to 8 game schedule and then turn around in a few months to come back to play for an 11-game schedule. That is close to 19 games, that is more than the NFL does; if we are concerned about the health and safety of our players then I don’t believe that is a smart decision.”

Willis’ main concerns for playing a spring schedule is the amount of games and the minimal amount of time for rest his players would receive. The college football landscape usually ends in early Jan., and starts in late Aug., giving players along with coaches around seven months to prepare for the next season.

If teams were to compete in the fall and the spring season this would allow the players to have only half the allotted time to recover from significant injuries, adjust to new personnel, or allow new recruits to assimilate to their surroundings.

“I would vote against it [spring season],” Willis said. “We will see, the NCAA and the conference might make me play, I might not have a choice. Keep in mind, we are going through a transition, we want the year to count. I don’t want to be added onto another year of transition, we are trying to get through this so one day we can play for the playoffs.”

The reason Willis stands against the spring season is because the conference would ultimately be playing for the FCS playoffs. He mentions that his team still cannot compete for the playoffs yet and that it would not really serve a significant amount of purpose to play. Willis has discussed playing a season in the spring with the coaches around the conference as well, leading to more uncertainty.

“It is mixed,” Willis said. “I have talked to half of them who are not for it and I talked to half of them who are not sure. I don’t think anyone is one hundred percent for it, and this across the country. I don’t know any football coach who is jumping through hoops to play spring football, they are all concerned about the same thing; the well-being of their players.”

This new schedule for the Lions proves to be difficult with three road games all against FBS level teams. Liberty, Southern Miss and BYU will square off against the Lions, but the FCS team does not think they should be written off quite yet.

“I feel like we will go to Liberty and beat them,” Thompson said. “We will beat Jacksonville State, and I think we can pull out the Southern Miss game; the tough one will be at BYU. We are going to play a game and then we get some weeks off, which I think will get everyone back to being healthy which will keep us competitive.”

As stated by the coaches and players alike, they believe they can compete against any of the teams they play this year. This team brings back a myriad of players to complement the both sides of the ball that will give them a unique type of play for this upcoming season.

The Lions will open the season on the road Oct., 3 against Liberty before making their lone home-stand against rival Jacksonville State on Oct., 17. The team will have significant time this season to prepare for each game and will have enough time to practice before the season starts.