Lions prepare to West Alabama and a former alum

Although Thursday's game between the University of North Alabama and West Alabama will be the 64th meeting in the all-time series, it may also be the most important game the two have played against each other in the long rivalry. UNA enters the game 6-1 overall and ranked No. 5 in the NCAA Division II, while West Alabama is 6-2 and ranked No. 23. It will be the first time in the series history that both teams will enter the game nationally ranked.

The Gulf South Conference race is also in the spotlight. There has never been a very big margin for error in the GSC football race and North Alabama knows that margin is even smaller this season. With just five league schools competing in football and only four conference games, UNA's 30-24 overtime loss to Delta State in its GSC opener has placed added pressure on the Lions in their final three-game GSC run. West Alabama is 1-1 in league play but faces No. 5 UNA and No. 1 Delta State in its final two GSC games. The league's five football-playing schools are 26-5 this season against non-conference opponents and four of the five are currently in the Division II Top 25.

UNA will be facing former Lion quarterback and Harlon Hill Trophy winner Will Hall for the first time as head coach at West Alabama. Hall quarterbacked UNA in 2002-03 and led the 2003 squad to a 13-1 record and to the semifinals of the Division II playoffs. Hall led Division II in passing efficiency that season.

Although UNA has dominated the series with West Alabama, holding a 47-15-1 lead, the Tigers have posted three wins over the Lions in the last nine seasons. The Tigers led UNA 23-3 in the fourth quarter of last year's game in Florence before the Lions rallied behind three Lee Chapple touchdown passes in a 6:11 period of the final period to pull out a 24-23 win. UNA has rolled over the Tigers on its last two trips to Livingston, winning 45-3 in 2006 and 41-9 in 2008. But prior to that, West Alabama pulled off upsets of the Lions in both 2002 (31-24) and 2004 (28-27).

UNA has had a week off to re-group after suffering a tough home loss to Delta State. The Lions held a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter but had critical breakdowns in all three phases of the game as DSU rallied for the win in overtime. This is the first time the Lions have had an open date in the regular season since 2002.

Senior quarterback Lee Chapple leads the UNA offense with 1,931 passing yards and 14 TD passes. Mo Miliam and Tristan Purifoy have emerged as the Lions' top receivers and have combined for 76 catches and 10 TDs. The Lions running back corp has been hampered by injury but senior transfer Demetrius Goode has emerged the last two games to give UNA another threat. Defensively, UNA is still among the national leaders in scoring defense at 17.4, but the Lions are allowing 395.9 yards per game.

West Alabama's ground game is formidable. Matthew Willis leads a UWA rushing attack that averages 234.9 yards per game. Willis has 1,025 yards on 179 carries and has reached the 1,000-yard plateau quicker than any player in West Alabama history. Quarterback Kyle Caldwell is the Tigers' second leading rusher with 250 yards on the ground, and he has also thrown for 779 yards and nine touchdowns. He has only thrown four interceptions but he had two of those returned for touchdowns in a 22-21 loss to Valdosta State.

The game, set for a 7 p.m. kickoff in Livingston, will be the GSC-TV Live Game of the Week and will be carried throughout the Southeast on Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast. The game can also be viewed, outside the southeast on ESPN3.