The Lions of North Alabama are one of the more historic D2 Football programs. They won three straight titles from 1993 to 1995, the most of any program in the division at the time. But since their run of dominance over two decades ago they have not made it back to the D2 Football National Championship game.
The team has been far from mediocre during that 21-year drought, but they have come up just short in the NCAA Tournament, a place UNA will almost certainly find themselves again come Sunday when the D2 football playoff field is announced.
"This is honestly the most complete team I have ever coached," said Bobby Wallace, head coach for the Lions from 1988 to 1997, who rejoined the team in 2012. "We are great in every area … offense, defense and special teams have all been reasons for our success this season."
Wallace — pictured left — is the winningest coach in North Alabama history with 122 Ws for the Lions. He was at the helm during the three-peat in the early to mid 90's.
But for all the national accolades Wallace's program has earned in the past, he's not blowing smoke when he talks about how good this 2016 squad is. They just locked up a record-breaking fourth straight GSC title, after all.
"Winning four straight conference titles was a goal we desperately wanted to obtain, knowing that nobody had ever won it four times in a row," Wallace told HERO. "The accomplishment is so big, it is hard to put in words. But anytime you can beat a Gulf South foe, that is a big accomplishment in itself."
The Lions lead the conference in scoring offense (40.3 ppg), scoring defense (15.4 ppg), kick return average (27.1 yards), and kick return defense (10.7 yds). North Alabama is also 12th in division in turnover margin at +11.
So generally speaking, they're good. Very good. But what about specifics? Wallace quickly mentioned senior quarterback Jacob Tucker — pictured right — as a reason for UNA's success. The first-year starter has 1,653 passing yards and 12 touchdowns so far.
"We have been up by 21 or more points entering the fourth quarter in six of our eight games," coach Wallace explained. "So with that in mind, we have not had to play Jacob a lot in the fourth quarter and his stats don't get longer to grow. In my mind though he would and should be a sure thing for the Harlon Hill trophy if we did play him longer."
For as successful as the Lions have been this season though, it was almost all for naught, as the NCAA had to grant a special waiver to allow them into the tournament. North Alabama will finish the season with only nine played games this year, and the NCAA requires ten to be eligible for postseason tournaments.
The issue arose when Hurricane Matthew affected the South, and especially Florida, where UNA was scheduled to play Florida Tech when the storm hit. The game was canceled and never made up.
"I was never concerned about it to be honest. I knew 100 percent in my mind that we would be granted access to the tournament for trying all we could to get the game played," Wallace detailed.
With one week left before the tournament field is selected, UNA and their faithful fans are starting to look at the bigger picture: the possibility of a trip to Kansas City.
Every regional ranking so far has seen North Alabama at the top of Super Region 2, a position that would give the 7-1 program a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the regional tournament. Home field may be more important in this region than any other, as the Gulf South represents five of the ten teams in the rankings, and will almost certainly send multiple teams to the dance.
"Getting to play teams you have already seen works out well for both sides really," Wallace said. "You know what you are up against, but at the same time they have motivation to avenge the loss we handed them earlier in the year."
Familiarity might help when it comes time for an elimination showdown, but coach Wallace knows that in the playoffs, anything can happen.
"Once we get into the playoffs, we have to take it one game a time," Wallace said of the path his team will face. "Once you win, you can focus on the next Saturday, and then you keep doing that until you stop and find yourself in Kansas City fighting for the title."
When UNA won their third title, they were the first team in D2 football with rings for three fingers. But three other programs have either matched or surpassed that total in the past 21 years.
"That number really doesn't weigh on my mind," Wallace told me. "I was gone for 14 of the 21 years it has been going on (Wallace coached at Temple, 1998-2005, and West Alabama, 2006-2010) so it hasn't really been a burden on my coaching career. For most of the players on our roster, they weren't even born the last time UNA won it all."
The Lions have as good a shot as any team in the upcoming 28-team field. It's just all about finding your way to the next Saturday.