Lions remain in playoff picture despite losses

UNA senior running back Diamond Simmons looks upfield for a block during the Lions’ homecoming game against North Carolina-Pembroke Oct. 17, where UNA won 62-28. The Lions ranked third in the first Super Region 2 rankings, released Oct. 26.

by Sports Editor Mike Ezekiel

After losing to West Georgia 31-10 Oct. 24, the UNA Lions find themselves sitting at 5-2 overall and a 3-1 Gulf South Conference record.

While the loss makes West Georgia the clear favorite to win the GSC and receive an automatic bid, the Lions are still in position to make the playoffs, said UNA defensive coordinator Chris Willis.

“We need to win these next three games,” Willis said. “At 9-1 (record-wise), your team is going to the playoffs. At 8-2, you’re more than likely going. At 7-3, you leave it in other people’s hands. If we drop another game, we need some help.”

In the NCAA’s first Super Region Rankings from Oct. 26, UNA ranks third, behind West Georgia and Tuskegee, respectively.

In the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Division II Coaches poll, UNA dropped eight spots to No. 21.

West Georgia is the top-ranked team nationally for the first time in school history. Tuskegee and Valdosta State are the other two region teams making the national poll at 16 and 24.

“I’ve been coaching in this league 17 years and have dealt with the region polls a long time,” Willis said. “We have two losses, one of those being a conference loss. I honestly expect us to be second or third in the region.”

The NCAA changed the Division II playoff format for the 2015 season, as each super region added four teams to the playoff field, giving each region seven slots to fill for 28 teams. In previous years, the top six teams from each region advance to the postseason.

Super Region 2 includes members of the GSC (8 teams), South Atlantic Conference (8), Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (11) and Division II independents (3) to make 30 teams.

The top seven teams from the super region will advance after regular season play based on overall record against Division II schools, conference record and regional record.

“I’m not sure how it’ll all work out, but I would think having seven teams would help us, especially since we already have two losses” said UNA offensive coordinator Cody Gross.

As the Lions remain in contention for a coveted playoff seed, Delta State University (5-3, 1-3) still has a slim chance. The Statesmen will look to spoil UNA’s season Oct. 31 at Braly Stadium.

“This (Delta State) game is huge and a must-win,” said junior defensive lineman Barron Miller. “We lost to Western Oregon and just lost our first conference game, so our backs are against the wall. We only have one option: to come out fighting. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Senior wide receiver Jarret Smith said the team realizes it must bounce back against Delta State and has a unified mindset going into the game.

“We need to continue to motivate each other,” he said. “We want to make sure our teammates are giving their all. We have an opportunity to redeem ourselves, so that’s what we are going to try to do.”

Smith said while last week’s loss put a temporary derail on UNA’s season and the hopes of a third straight GSC championship, it did not end the entire season.

“That game showed me that everyone goes through a bump in the road,” he said. “It’s on us to find out how to get around that bump.”

Following the Delta State games, the Lions will travel to Shorter Nov. 7 and finish the regular season at home against rival West Alabama.

“We have to win these game,” Gross said. “We put our backs against the wall, especially with the loss to Western Oregon. There is not much room for error. These three teams are tough.”