FLORENCE -- Having moved up to 13th in the NCAA Division II national poll, but dropping to fifth in the Super Region 2 rankings, the University of North Alabama football team will square off in an apparent winner-take-all showdown with Valdosta State Saturday on the road in Valdosta, Ga.
Coming off a solid 28-3 win at home over West Georgia, UNA jumped from 17th in the AFCA Division II poll to 13th. In the all-important regional rankings, however, the Lions dipped to fifth behind Delta State, Mars Hill, North Greenville and West Alabama. Valdosta State is positioned behind UNA in the sixth spot, and with the top six teams in the region advancing to the playoffs, the loser of Saturday's 1 p.m. battle will likely be dropped from consideration.
Valdosta State is 6-3 overall and is coming off an open date, giving the Blazers two weeks to prepare for the Lions. In a similar situation a year ago, VSU downed UNA 5-0 with two weeks to prepare, but UNA came back and drilled the Blazers in Valdosta in the playoffs, 43-20.
UNA has faced Valdosta State in similar circumstances in Valdosta in 1990 and 1992. In the final regular season game in 1990, UNA came in 7-2 and needed a win to advance to the post-season and downed VSU 26-10. In 1992, UNA came into the final regular season at 6-3 and posted battled back to earn a 24-24 tie with VSU to advance to the playoffs again.
Playing in Valdosta should not be a down-side for the Lions. In addition to the 43-20 playoff win in Valdosta, UNA also beat the Blazers 62-27 in Valdosta State in 2009, scoring the most points ever allowed by the Blazers. That means UNA has outscored VSU 105-47 on its last two trips to Valdosta. In fact, UNA has an all-time winning record in Valdosta at 9-8-1.
North Alabama leads the all-time series with Valdosta State 19-14-1. The two schools have played every season since Valdosta State began its football program in 1982 and have played each other twice in a season five times (1994, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010). UNA has won four of the last five meetings in the series and six of the last nine. UNA and Valdosta State played each other in the final game of the regular-season for nine years from 1984 to 1992. The Lions and Blazers had a 4-4-1 record in those games.
UNA's offense showed improvement on the ground against West Georgia last Saturday, rushing for a season-high 261 yards. Senior Wes Holland rushed for a career-high 154 yards, Chris Coffey had his top game of the year with 69 yards and Antwan Ivey returned after missing five weeks with an ankle injury and gained 52 yards on just six carries. Lions' quarterback Lee Chapple earned his second GSC Offensive Player of the Week award last week, throwing for three touchdowns and 189 yards. He has now thrown for 5,568 yards and 40 touchdowns in his two seasons at UNA.
North Alabama is among the Division II leaders, having only lost four fumbles all season. Two of those were on punt returns and one was by a receiver. The only lost fumble on a rushing attempt by UNA this season was by Wes Holland in the season-opener. UNA has had 279 consecutive carries without a lost fumble.
Valdosta State is coming off a home loss to West Georgia two weeks ago where the Wolves scored the game-winning touchdown with five seconds left in the contest. Austen Roberts has settled in as the starting quarterback and has thrown for 1,034 yards and seven scores. The VSU ground game is similar to UNA's with multiple backs sharing the duties. Both teams are allowing just over 360 yards per game, with UNA giving up just 17 points per game and Valdosta State 23.2.
Kickoff for Saturday's game is 1 p.m. Central at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.