Lions on handling crazy season

Quin Norris, Sports Editor

 The 2020 football season has been one of many hardships for the sports fan this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging it is on all college football programs to find new and creative ways to have their season this year. This naturally extends to head coach Chris Willis and the UNA Lions as they have finished up half of their four game schedule following a close 24-17 loss to in-state rival Jacksonville State. 

When asked about how the team handled this strange and new issue during the offseason Coach Willis said, “Well the hard part at the very beginning of all of this was the pause we took on July sixth. We try to do some kind of conditioning with them because we had not seen them since March. Once we got started we had very little information on if we would be playing because the conference had not been canceled. There was just a lack of answers and a lot of confusion around eligibility. The NCAA then comes out with rules so we began to test multiple times a week and we were able to send our guys to a cardiologist that many teams can’t do. Following that we were able to set up our four game schedule with bye weeks put in and we were able to get rolling.”

The new feel for the season did not stop after the offseason for the Lions. Due to the cancellation of the Big South conference play for the fall of 2020 the team had to put together a four game non-conference schedule in order to achieve the requirements for a season that counts towards eligibility for playoff contention in 2022. The interesting issues that this season has placed on this team is the time between games. When asked about the strain multiple bye weeks puts on the mentality of the team Willis said, “For us we are just coming out of a game on Saturday and we are sitting around for two weeks. We will practice and we will do stuff, but we do not play again until Nov. 7. As a coach and a player you lose the flavor for the game a little bit. There is an excitement for game week but that excitement is not there week to week like a normal season. Right now we are working day to day keeping these players locked in by continuing to work hard through these bye weeks.” 

The issues that are presented to the players come from a slightly different lens. When speaking to redshirt junior wide receiver Jakobi Byrd he said, “One of the main difficulties we have been facing is time management. This is simply due to getting tested three times a week then when you include study hall and practice it creates a new challenge for us.” 

The biggest bright side the new season has created for the team comes in the form of three games against FBS competition. These teams are Liberty, Southern Miss and BYU. When asked what that meant to the players Byrd stated, “It is a big opportunity for a guy like me and my teammates. It gives us the chance to see where we are at and see what we got.” When asked why the Lions would schedule three of their four games against FBS programs Coach Willis stated, “We are in the transition into the FCS level and we still have a whole year left to go. That means we are not eligible to play for anything. We could go 11-0 and get nothing more than a pat on the back. Right now what we have to do during this transition is recruit and develop Division 1 talent by playing football games and getting in the weight room. So instead of lighting the load and playing an easy schedule why not go out and play the best teams we can. For this year we saw an opportunity to play what is called a money game against these FBS schools to both build revenue for the program and test our players. This approach is not new for the Lions as they have already scheduled road games against ranked FCS schools such as Southern Utah, North Dakota State, Western Illinois and Montana. Along with the original schedule for this season including Virginia Tech and BYU. 

Despite the 0-2 record the team currently faces the team has also shown massive improvement. When you look at the two teams they have played in Liberty and Jacksonville State they have had no easy task. Liberty is currently ranked 27 in the AP polls and Jacksonville State has only received one loss to Florida State 41-24 while also beating an FBS program in FIU. In both of these games the Lions have played tough and close with their opponents losing by an average of 14 points. However, the season does not get any easier for the Lions as they will still have to play against Sun Belt conference member Southern Miss and home of Heisman candidate quarterback Zach Wilson BYU. Something tells me that this will not phase the Lions as they continue to work hard to finish out this season and get ready for the remainder of their schedule. 

The next game for the Lions will be played Saturday Nov. 7 at 2:00 pm on ESPN plus and ESPN3.