Lions commence season against former rival

Former UNA linebacker Brion James pummels a Jacksonville State receiver Sept. 14, 2013, at Burgess-Snow Field. The Lions and Gamecocks will renew their rivalry on Sept. 1 at Jacksonville.

When UNA football opens the 2016 season, their opponent might be unfamiliar to some current players, but most likely not to long-time purple and gold faithful.

UNA will begin their quest to another conference championship against a renewed rival, the Jacksonville State Gamecocks Sept. 1 in Jacksonville.

UNA head coach Bobby Wallace said he knows all too well how important this game is.

“My first game against JSU was 1988,” he said. “When I was hired, Dr. (Robert) Guillot told me and (then UNA men’s basketball) coach Gary Elliott that we don’t have to win the conference every year, just don’t get beat by the three teams in red: Jacksonville State, Troy and West Alabama.”

During Wallace’s first stint at UNA from 1988-97 was the climax of intensity in the rivalry, as both teams found success in the early 1990’s.

“At one time, the rivalry between UNA and Jacksonville State was just as vicious as the Auburn-Alabama rivalry,” Wallace said.

The last time these two rivals met was in 2013, when Jacksonville State nabbed a double-overtime victory against the Lions on a missed field goal.

“I remember there was a lot of hype around campus for the 2013 game, and I didn’t know what to expect going into that game,” said senior guard Stephen Evans. “But the fans at Jacksonville were loud and close to the action so it was a crazy atmosphere. “

Evans said he is aware of how important this rivalry is to UNA fans.

“Coach Wallace stressed the importance of the game to us, and you can’t take anything for granted,” Evans said.

That passionate hatred for one another is mutual on both sides, said Sam Houston, Jacksonville State class of 1995 alumnus.

“JSU played in the national title game in ‘91, won it in ‘92, then UNA won it from ‘93-‘95, so there was a stretch where one of the two schools was in the title game for five straight years,” Houston said.

To add even more fuel to the fire, many high school teammates became rivals on the college level, as some made the decision to play at UNA, while others donned the red uniform, Houston said.

Now, the schools have only met sporadically since JSU moved from Division II to Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in 1993, but still evoke dormant feelings of an intense rivalry when they agree to meet on the field, Wallace said.

“The fact that Jacksonville State played in the (FCS) national championship last year, our players are aware we are playing a great team,” Wallace said.

Senior defensive back Levi Fell said the coaches have stressed the importance of the rivalry to UNA’s football history, but he plans to put all of his focus to finding an opening victory.

“We’ve only played them one time since I’ve been here in 2013,” Fell said. “I really don’t know much about the rivalry, but I know football will be played in between the lines. I’m going to be there, and we’re going to try to win.”

Fell said if the rivalry were ever to renew permanently, he wants to help lay the foundation for future battles.

“The coaches have talked about how there used to be a rivalry and how we went back and forth between winning and losing,” Fell said. “I would like to turn it into a winning tradition over here this year. Hopefully next year, if UNA tries to play them again, it would just continue on.”

When UNA travels to Jacksonville on Thursday, Sept. 1, the game will serve as a reminder that football rivalries in the state of Alabama run deeper than crimson and navy.