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Many times I have traveled to Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, AL to the national championship game. I would usually catch myself saying the same thing to people on each one of those trips

"I bet this would be a really neat atmosphere if North Alabama were playing in the game."

Since winning the three straight national titles from 1993-95 on their home turf, the Lions had not been able to get over the hump and get back to play another national championship game despite being tantalizingly close so many times:

In 2003, UNA lost 29-22 at North Dakota in the semifinals.

In 2005 it was a 25-24 home loss to Northwest Missouri in the semifinals.

In 2006, the unbeaten Lions lost a shocker in the second round of the playoffs to rival Delta State.

In 2008, another semifinal loss to Northwest Missouri.

In 2013, the final season that UNA could have played a championship game at home, the Lions lost a 42-39 shootout to Lenoir-Rhyne in the regional final. LRU went on to the championship game.

So it seems ironic to me that UNA finally gets in the big game after all these years and as a reward gets to play it on what amounts to the opposition*s home turf. Northwest Missouri had around 15,000 of its fans at Children*s Mercy Park in Kansas City last year and I think everyone is expecting another big pro-Bearcat crowd this Saturday. The Lions will be getting a dose of what their fans dished out during the mid-90*s three-peat. Despite cold weather in the forecast (mid teens and windy at kickoff) I expect that it will be a tremendous atmosphere on Saturday at the national championship game.

Semifinal Observations

-North Alabama*s superior athleticism on defense was on full display Saturday. Jeff Ziemba completed just 11 of 28 passes for 112 yards and receiver Billy Brown was limited to just two catches for 17 yards. The Lions did not put a ton of pressure on Ziemba, but it did not seem to matter as there were not many open passing lanes.

-UNA managed just a field goal in the second half, but the Lions moved the ball enough to maintain an advantage in field position. The last five Shepherd drives started at their own 20, 17, 11, 1 and 25 yard-lines.

-Shepherd running back Brand Hlavach ran the ball 10 times for 43 yards and caught a 10-yard pass on Shepherd*s game opening touchdown drive. But Hlavach finished the game with just 24 carries as the UNA defense would not allow the Rams to extend drives. Shepherd was just three of 16 on third down on Saturday.

-Ferris State sophomore defensive end Zach Sieler is the real deal. His strip sack of Kyle Zimmerman set up FSU deep in Bearcat territory in the second quarter, which the Bulldogs capitalized on to take a 13-7 lead. Another big hit on Zimmerman a few plays later knocked the Bearcat senior out of the game.

-The FSU offense had some success at times, but just had too many negative plays and penalties. FSU was flagged nine times and nine of the Bulldogs’ 59 offensive plays ended in a loss of yardage. It’s tough to beat a good team when the offense is always in long yardage situations.

-A ton of credit needs to go to the Northwest coaches and players for overcoming adversity since this was the first game all year that they really faced any. In addition to Zimmerman, defensive back Marcus Jones, receiver George Sehl and defensive end Collin Bevins all left the game due to injuries as well. Northwest was already playing without standout receiver Shawn Bane, who has missed the playoffs with an injury. Many young players were asked to step up and make plays and they certainly came through.

National Championship Game
North Alabama (11-1) versus Northwest Missouri (14-0)

TV: ESPN2 at 4:00 PM Eastern on Saturday

This is pretty much a dream matchup between two of the most prominent programs in D2 history. Both teams are in the playoffs for a D2 record 21st time this season. NWMSU is the all-time leader in playoff victories while UNA is second. The Bearcats will be going for a sixth national championship and second in a row. UNA is trying to win a fourth national championship. Another interesting factor is that this is likely to be the last high stakes meeting between these two programs. UNA just announced last week that it is moving to D-I after the 2018 season.

Any football team that is still playing at this time of the year has faced some adversity with injuries. UNA has had to shuffle the offensive line a bit and standout corner Levi Fell has missed all playoff games with an injury.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the injury situation for Northwest could be a major factor in this game. If Zimmerman can’t play it means that the Bearcats would have to turn to Jonathan Baker and Randy Schmidt to handle the quarterback duties. Baker is the passing threat of the two while Schmidt is a good runner. Those two rose to the occasion when called upon last week, but they will be facing a much better defense and be playing on a bigger stage in this game. Bevins’ play at defensive end is the key to how the Bearcats operate on defense so it will be interesting to see if he is effective as well.

Keys to the game for Northwest Missouri:

-Don’t let Jacob Tucker run wild. The UNA quarterback is very good running the ball on designed plays and especially deadly when pass plays break down. I would imagine that the Bearcat defense will employ the use of a spy.

-Run the football effectively. With the injuries to Zimmerman and the wide receivers, the Bearcats are playing with fire by going to the air too often. Northwest needs to be patient offensively and try to wear down the Lions up front.

-Win the battle in the trenches. I think the Bearcats are the more physical team up front on both sides of the ball. With the weather conditions as they are Northwest will want to try to control the game with their big guys up front.

Keys to the game for North Alabama:

-Catch the football. I’m not sure if it was due to the cold weather, but UNA receivers had a tough time catching the ball last week. Even though it is projected to be even colder on Saturday, the Lions have to catch the ball and make plays in the passing game when given an opportunity.

-Win the special teams battle. Both teams have good punters and kickers, but UNA is much more explosive in the return game with Philbert Martial being extremely dangerous on both kick and punt returns. If the Lions can gain some hidden yards in the return game or even break one for a score, it could tip the game in their favor.

-Play a clean game. No turnovers or silly penalties. I think the Lions will be right there in the fourth quarter if they can do those two things.


The last time we had a national championship game this enticing was in 2006, when unbeatens Northwest Missouri and Grand Valley met. It appeared coming into that game that the Bearcats were the favorite, but they were undone by some critical turnovers and a great individual effort by Laker quarterback Cullen Finnerty, who ran for 115 yards and accounted for 340 of GVSU’s 348 yards of offense.

This game has a very similar feel to it. Again, I feel the Bearcats are the favorite, even with the injury concerns. I think they are better up front on both sides of the ball, with the extreme cold and pro-Northwest crowd being other factors in their favor. However, if Tucker can carry UNA offensively and the Lions win the turnover battle, they can win this football game. It should be a great one. Northwest Missouri 20 North Alabama 16


[Q] Do you think the weather being bad on Saturday could potentially have the NCAA looking at a different site for future championship games?

[A] I do think that poor weather could definitely have an impact on deciding where to play the game in the future. The first two years the weather was good but it looks like this season could be close to a worst case scenario. The game was awarded to Kansas City through 2017, so there will be one more year at the current venue.

The bottom line is there is not really an ideal venue to hold the game. There are a lot of advantages to playing it in KC, but being so far north makes bad weather a constant threat. Going back to Florence is out with UNA moving to D-I. With West Florida now having a football program I could see Pensacola being a good venue but the Argonauts are playing their games in a minor league baseball stadium for now. It will be interesting to see what transpires next year when the host city is up for bids again.


Feel free to contact me at with any comments or criticisms or if you have a question you would like answered in the Mailbag.


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