North Alabama K.J. Smith courtesy

North Alabama senior strong safety K.J. Smith plays during a football game. The Lions come to Missoula to face Montana at 7 p.m. MT Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in the Grizzlies' home opener.

MISSOULA — Montana will play its first home game of the season when it hosts North Alabama under the lights at 7 p.m. MT Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The Griz (1-0) are coming off a 31-17 road win over Missouri Valley Football Conference foe South Dakota in a game in which it was the betting underdog. The Lions (1-0) upset a young Western Illinois team at home, 26-17, despite being an 18.5-point underdog.

406mtsports.com caught up with North Alabama beat writer Gregg Dewalt, who covers the Lions for the TimesDaily in Florence, Alabama, to talk about this year’s North Alabama team, the Lions' move up to Division I and expectations for Saturday's game.

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Q: What were the expectations for North Alabama coming into the season? What does a season-opening upset win over Western Illinois mean for this team heading forward?

A: It's weird in the way of expectations, simply because there is no carrot at the end of the stick, so to speak. UNA is not eligible for the playoffs, so that's not a goal. Their games don't count in the Big South standings, so that isn't on the table.

I think the expectations are to have a winning record and be competitive each week. Obviously, they would like to win their Big South games. If they were to do that, then coaches would probably give the players some sort of recognition as the true Big South champs.

After watching the Western Illinois game, I'm not sure it was an upset even though UNA was considered an 18.5-point underdog at kickoff. More than anything, I think it was a boost of confidence in that maybe they are already on the same level as at least a lot of FCS teams.

Q: Why have the Lions had the success they have since moving to Div. I? Do they physically resemble FCS athletes, or is there not much of a difference between the FCS and Division II?

A: Part of UNA's success last season was due in part to playing a split schedule vs. FCS/Division II teams, so the record was a tad misleading. Two of the wins came against the weakest Gulf South Conference teams. One win came against a weak SWAC opponent.

There are a couple of reasons for their success in the early transition period. First, they played in a big boy Division II league. There isn't a lot of difference from the top tier of the GSC to the middle and lower tier FCS schools. The Gulf South Conference has a ton of transfer players. A lot of the JUCO transfers just don't qualify for D-I but are D-I caliber players.

The biggest difference is in the offensive and defensive lines, coaches tell me. It's more about length than size. That's where UNA is looking to upgrade during its next few recruiting cycles. But the skill players UNA has and has had are on par with most everybody they'll play.

Q: How does North Alabama stay motivated despite not being eligible for the playoffs until 2022? What is it the coaches and players say they’re playing for until then, especially this year?

A: Some of the answer to this is on the first question. Coaches are also selling this year's team that it is an opportunity to lay the foundation for the future and prove that UNA will be ready to compete for the postseason when the transitional period ends. Winning that first game was important. Coaches know they need to have success early to keep the team motivated throughout the season.

Q: What does North Alabama have to do to beat Montana on Saturday? What areas of the game or matchups will you be watching?

A: UNA is going to have to be good in the run game and moving the chains to have a chance to win. The run game was spotty last week — a couple of big runs but a lot of 1- and 2-yard runs, too. Its offense isn't really geared to long, methodical drives, but it needs to limit Montana's possessions.

I'm curious to see how well UNA's secondary holds up against what must be a pretty good passing attack. Western Illinois really didn't have much of a passing game. UNA's secondary has two young players and a couple of veterans, so that will be a key matchup.

Q: What’s your score prediction for the game? Why?

A: It's hard to see UNA traveling to Montana and winning. If not a win, I think a good outcome would be for the Lions to keep it close well into the fourth quarter with a chance to win.

One thing, UNA won't be intimidated. A lot of these guys played last year at North Dakota State and they held their own for much of the game, so it won't be a shock to be playing with such a hostile crowd.

This will be a good indicator of how far the Lions have come in the transition and how far they have left to go to be on the same level as one of the elite FCS programs in the country.

Prediction: Montana 35, UNA 21

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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