Game week has finally arrived for the University of North Alabama football team as the Lions direct their attention to a Sunday, September 6 opener at Birmingham's Legion Field against Miles College.
North Alabama returns 56 lettermen and 15 starters from a 2014 team that went 9-2, won a share of the Gulf South Conference Championship and advanced to the NCAA Division II Playoffs. Although the Lions open with a non-conference game, UNA is trying to become just the third team in GSC history to win three straight league crowns and will be seeking to advance to the NCAA Division II Playoffs for the 11th time in the last 13 seasons.
For UNA head coach Bobby Wallace, game day can't get here soon enough.
“I don’t think there is any question that we’re ready to go," Wallace said. "We’re very healthy. The players are very in-tune with our schemes and what we are trying to accomplish and they're in the best shape they have ever been. We’re in great condition and a lot of credit goes to Ryan Wood and Tia Anderson for the work they did with our players in the off season.That has not only cut down on injuries but has also allowed us to devote more time to assignments and getting in more repetitions.
“It will be our first game and we’ll make some mistakes and there will be things to iron out, but we’re also a very experienced team,” Wallace said.
When Wallace returned to coach the Lions in 2012, his first game back at UNA was against Miles at Legion Field. Wallace said this year’s game has a much different feel.
“This game is a whole different world than it was three years ago,” Wallace said. “Three years ago we had a very young team and there weren’t a lot of expectations. We were going down there to play in front of a big crowd and do the best we could do. This time we are going down there with a very experienced team that a lot is expected of, and we’re playing a tough in-region Division II opponent.”
North Alabama is ranked in the pre-season Top 16 in four different national rankings, including fifth in Lindy's Sports Division II poll.
UNA's opponent, Miles College, is coached by former North Alabama All-Americans Reginald Ruffin and Ronald McKinnon, but Wallace said facing them on the opposing sideline is no longer a novelty.
“I love seeing them but this year is a little different," Wallace said. "It’s the third time we’ve played them since I’ve been back at UNA so it’s not a new experience. We’ll meet and talk before the game but we have a game to win and they have a game to win and that’s what it’s about. They want to beat us just like we want to beat them and it will be a big win for whoever comes out on top.”
This will be the ninth all-time meeting between UNA and Miles College with the Lions holding an 8-0 record against the Golden Bears. It will be the second meeting at Legion Field, with UNA winning the previous Birmingham meeting 31-30 in 2012.
In addition to being unbeaten against Miles, UNA also has a remarkable 40-5-1 record all-time against teams from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. UNA’s last game against an SIAC team was a 30-27 win over Tuskegee in 2013 in the first round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs in Florence. UNA’s last loss ro an SIAC team was 17-10 to Albany State in Albany in the 1996 season-opener. The Lions have a current six-game winning streak against SIAC institutions.
The Lions have won their last 12 straight openers dating back to a 24-21 double-overtime loss at Samford in the 2002 opener. All-time, UNA has a 39-23-4 record in its 66 previous season-opening games.
One Lion in particular has had great success against Miles. In his first collegiate game in 2012, UNA's Lamonte Thompson rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries against Miles College at Legion Field. The following year, Thompson gained 189 yards on 14 carries against the Golden Bears in Florence. That’s a total of 291 yards on 35 carries against Miles and an 8.3 yard per carry average.
The Lions will have a day off Monday before returning to the practice field for 3:15 workouts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Kickoff for the September 6 game is set for 6 p.m.