By year’s end, North Alabama will have completed one of the stranger seasons in program history.
But before the Lions can close the book on the 2020 season, UNA will do something it hasn’t in 75 years as a program — play a top-10 FBS team. Enter No. 8 BYU, which will host the Lions at 2 p.m. Saturday.
If the Lions’ theme of year 2 of a transition to NCAA Division I was playing a Big South schedule for the first time, this year is the year of stacking up against the best and seeing what they’ve got.
“It’s been a challenging schedule by all means,” UNA coach Chris Willis said. “Two of the teams (No. 8 BYU and No. 21 Liberty) are nationally ranked. In the world of FCS, you normally don't play something like this. Obviously, the opponent we’re playing Saturday, there’s not a team that this university has ever played of this caliber.”
So much like the last three games, the Lions know the challenge ahead. They’ve seen BYU quarterback Zach Wilson tear apart defenses to the tune of 2,512 yards, 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
But when the Lions set out to make a four-game schedule in the summer, they already knew the challenges.
They also saw some potential benefits. So far, reality is pretty close to the expectation.
“We get to play four games to get better, against stiff competition,” Willis said. “Now we can look across the board and say, this is where we need to add the depth, this is what we need talent-wise, this is what we need to do. What do we need to change? Whatever they may be, when you play teams like this, it exposes those types of things.”
Finding out the areas of need, improvement, execution and whatever the case may be hasn’t necessarily come without a few growing pains.
“We’re working through some kinks,” redshirt sophomore receiver Dexter Boykin said. “We definitely showed some flashes of really good stuff, but we’re still working through some kinks. Hopefully we can put it together on Saturday.”
Willis elaborated on Boykin’s point, putting emphasis on the competition, which needs to be a part of the equation.
He’s also heard from several coaches about the difficulty of playing a FBS school. Often it’s the offense that struggles first, while the defense is able to make plays.
So far, that’s the case, as the defense has held the mantle for UNA. The Lions have given up just 25.3 points per game, a near 8-point decrease from last season.
In the end, yes, UNA will have faced one of the better teams it has ever faced as a program after Saturday’s game.
But the goal is no different than the previous three games. Continue to learn, evaluate and figure out about your team and bring that into the 2021 season next fall.
“All we can do is go out there and play with great effort,” Willis said. “Play with some pride, and get after it, knowing that we are the underdog. Legit underdog. Let's just compete, man. Let's see how it all unfolds.”