With the 2011 Gulf South Conference football schedule paired down to just four games per team, each school knew going into the season that every league game would carry even more weight than in years past.
Off to an 0-2 start in league play, the University of North Alabama Lions know that there is no game bigger than the one they will play Saturday against West Georgia. Despite being ranked 17th in the nation in this week's NCAA Division II poll, the Lions know another regular-season loss will end their hopes of advancing to the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year.
Saturday's kickoff is set for 4 p.m. at Braly Stadium.
The Lions were 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation just two weeks ago but have suffered back-to-back GSC losses by a combined 11 points. West Georgia has surged to a 5-3 overall record and is coming off the biggest win in Darryl Dickey's tenure in Carrollton last Saturday at Valdosta State, 23-20. West Georgia is the only one of the GSC's five teams that has not been nationally ranked this season, but the Wolves could earn a share of a GSC title with wins in their final two games. UNA can finish no better than tied for second in the GSC standings but the Lions know they are playing their final two games to earn a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The GSC has dominated non-conference opponents with a combined 26-5 record against outside competition this season. The balance within the league has been equally remarkable. There have been six Gulf South Conference games played in 2011 and they have been settled by a combined 30 points - or an average victory margin of just five points per game. Four of the six games have pitted two nationally ranked teams against each other.
UNA will be honoring the more than 30 members of its 2011 senior class tonight. This group of Lions has an overall 38-10 record from 2008-11 and could still become the eighth class in UNA history to win 40 or more games. With records of 12-2, 11-2, 9-4 and 6-2, these Lions have gone 19-4 at home and 34-7 in the regular-season. They have also been ranked in the Division II Top 25 for 49 weeks, and in the Top 10 for 43 weeks. They are also trying to become just the fifth senior class in school history to advance to the NCAA playoffs four straight years.
West Georgia has made a remarkable turnaround in 2011, coming off a streak of five straight losing seasons in which the Wolves had a combined 7-44 record. West Georgia has emerged with a balanced offensive attack that has cut down on turnovers, and a defense that has 18 take-aways in eight games. UWG quarterback Emmanuel Taylor has thrown for seven touchdowns, rushed for another seven and is the team's second leading rusher. Denarius Appling is a dangerous receiver and return man who has taken three punts back for touchdowns this fall.
UNA's offense is led by senior quarterback Lee Chapple, who has thrown for 2,328 yards and 16 touchdowns. Defensively, the Lions have allowed 30 or more points in back-to-back games in the regular season for the first time since 2002.