Football carries momentum into final game

North Alabama football players celebrate during their 51-3 victory over West Florida Nov. 5 at Braly Stadium. The Lions currently sit atop the region rankings after winning a fourth straight Gulf South Conference title.

North Alabama won its fourth consecutive conference championship with a win over West Florida Nov. 5 and sit at the top of the region standings.

But now is not the time to become complacent, said UNA head coach Bobby Wallace.

The Lions (7-1, 6-0 Gulf South Conference) have locked up the conference championship outright for the first time in four years and will not have to share the title with any other team. 

A win this Saturday over Mississippi College ensures a bye week in the playoffs, as well as home field advantage.

“Having that bye is huge, especially when you get in the playoffs like this with so many teams,” said UNA head coach Bobby Wallace. “Each game you play, you have the opportunity for somebody to get hurt. So not playing eliminates one of those opportunities for us and increases our chances of making it to the end.”

In the latest region rankings from Nov. 7, the Lions were atop the standings as the No. 1 seed and are the No. 7 team in the American Football Coaches Association Division II national poll.

Behind UNA in Super Region 2 are Newberry, Valdosta State, UNC-Pembroke, Florida Tech, Tuskegee and North Greenville. The Lions have faced two of the six, holding victories over both Valdosta State (44-19) and North Greenville (52-21).

On the outside looking in is Wingate at No. 8, followed by two GSC foes in West Alabama and West Georgia to round out the top 10. UNA defeated both the Tigers (45-7) and the Wolves (24-23) in back-to-back weeks earlier this season.

Wallace said this is the most complete team he has ever coached.

“We’ve had a dominant year,” Wallace said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve gone into the fourth quarter in six of our eight games with a 21 point lead or more.”

UNA is first in the conference in scoring offense, scoring defense, third down conversions, kickoff returns and kickoff coverage. The Lions are also second in the GSC in field goals, punt returns, first downs and opponent’s first downs. Nationally, UNA is 12th in the turnover ratio.

When comparing this 2016 squad to the national championship teams, Wallace said he believes this team is on par with those teams, if not better.

“When we won the national championship in ’93, we we’re unbelievable on offense and pretty good on defense,” he said. “When we won the national championship in ’95, we were great on defense and pretty good on offense.

“But this one is the most complete one. It’s not offense, it’s not defense and it’s not special teams. It’s all of them playing at a high level. I’m really proud of this team.”

Wallace said it is important for his team not to look ahead, as this has been the team’s motto all season long.

“Every game is important,” Wallace said. “Over the last three years at least once each year we had a game we should’ve won where we’ve had the better team, but didn’t play well. We can’t let that happen this year.”

The team has responded well to the new mantra, said junior kicker Kevin Henke.

“We have to play each game like it’s our last,” Henke said. “I’d say each game, we have to continue to get better as we have been.”

Senior guard Terrance Knighten said he shares the sentiment that no game should be taken lightly.

“This team is really good, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Knighten said. “If we beat (Mississippi College) this week, we’ll get that nice little break in the first round. That’s important for us to get people back and give people a rest.”

UNA kicks off against the Choctaws Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. in Clinton, Mississippi to close the regular season. Regardless of the outcome, UNA will receive the GSC championship trophy.