MISSOULA — North Alabama knows quite a bit about winning.
Since 1990, the Lions are the second-winningest program in the state of Alabama, trailing only the Alabama Crimson Tide. Along the way, the Division II team that moved up to the FCS in 2018 won three national titles and played in a fourth championship, most recently in 2016.
North Alabama coach Chris Willis is aware of Montana’s history of success in the FCS. He also knows about the Grizzlies’ support from a rabid fanbase and the importance of having a quality stadium like Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Those are all things the Lions are trying to build in Florence, Alabama, as they try to translate their winning ways to the Division I level. So, Saturday’s game against the Griz in Missoula can provide them with a measuring stick for where they are as a team and also give them an up-close look at one of the programs they want to emulate.
“We have a lot of respect for the opponent we’re playing Saturday,” Willis told 406mtsports.com in a phone call after his team upset Western Illinois last week. “We by no means are going to come in there with any arrogance because we’re 1-0. This is going to be a different deal and different atmosphere and different team.
“I just hope that we’re competitive and hopefully we got a chance in the fourth quarter to give ourselves a chance to win a ballgame. It would be a great statement for this program if we can start off 2-0 and especially against two teams that we’re clearly going to be the underdog again this week.”
North Alabama is 4-2 against FCS teams since moving up to Division I last season. One of those losses came against North Dakota State, which has won seven of the past eight national titles.
The Lions joined the Big South after playing as an independent last year and are playing a full FCS schedule for the first time this season. This year’s slate features three teams currently ranked in the Top 25, and Montana will be the first of those tests.
“There’s no doubt we’re up for a tremendous challenge ahead of us,” said Willis, who's in his third year as the head coach and 18th with the program. “This looks like a good football team. They’re getting themselves back into the days of the glory. We’ll see kind of where this team ends up. Just from watching Montana the other day they look like a playoff-caliber team. I think we’ve got a real test on our hands.”
Should Montana reach its seating capacity of 25,217, it’ll be the largest crowd to ever see North Alabama play a football game. The current record is 24,837, when the Lions played Abilene Christian in 2011 at Cowboys Stadium.
Some players on North Alabama were on the roster when the Lions played in front of 22,116 at Jacksonville State in 2016. Most of them got to experience the game at No. 1 North Dakota State last season, when the Lions hung with the Bison in the first half before losing 38-7.
Willis and the Lions are embracing their opportunity to play in front of large crowd in Missoula. He feels his group has enjoyed playing on the road and showing opposing fans what they’re capable of doing.
“My guys are a different group. They seem to embrace that,” Willis said. “It’s kind of odd, but we like going on the road and playing. There’s nothing like being in the hotel just with you and your guys and embracing knowing that there are people rooting against you. Winning on the road, if you can do that, is a great feeling.”
As far as the matchup, Willis feels the teams are similar with wide receiver depth, a dual-threat quarterback and the lack of a defined run game. The main difference is he feels the Lions’ offensive linemen aren’t of the same size of Montana’s.
"I think in the world of FCS, the two teams are probably going to have two of the better wide receiver units," Willis said. "I haven't seen all the quarterbacks that we're going to play moving forward, but just looking at (Dalton Sneed), he's got to be up there as one of the best ones we're going to face all year. Just his ability to get out of the pocket and make plays down the field, he's a pretty dynamic guy."
Defensively, he named linebacker Dante Olson and the front seven as jumping out, although he didn’t want to downplay the Grizzlies’ secondary.
“The biggest thing I see is they’re well coached and they seem to be very sound at what they do, meaning they play their gaps, their assignments,” Willis said. “You got to earn everything you get against them. Their front seven, they're going to make you earn it, especially if you try to run the football.”
The two main issues facing North Alabama, Willis feels, are its current exclusion from the postseason and its lack of a quality stadium. Managing and then growing the football budget is also a key, he said.
The Lions are ineligible for the FCS playoffs until 2022 because of NCAA transition rules. That has forced Willis and his staff to find creative ways to keep his players engaged. Last year, the players were given rings to celebrate their first season as an FCS team after going 7-3.
“Let’s say we went 11-0, it’s over with. There’s nothing at the end of the tunnel for us,” Willis said. “That’s difficult in the recruiting process. That makes it hard. We still get good players here. Our coaches, I’m proud of the way they get players in here.
“I can’t wait until we can play for the postseason. I can’t imagine the players we do get in here. I feel like we’re that away, along with having a stadium, from being in the talks of like a Montana or Jacksonville State down the road one day.”
The North Alabama administration has bought in on building a new stadium, with the university president announcing his support last week prior to the Lions’ season-opening victory in front of an announced crowd of 10,567. The team currently plays in a stadium built in 1949 and shares it with the local high school football team.
Willis said potential improvements with a new stadium, especially one on campus, should be a boost in recruiting and drawing in fans and boosters. It could also help the Lions establish themselves on a national level, similar to Montana, North Dakota State, Eastern Washington and Jacksonville State, the last of whom played in the same Division II Gulf South Conference that North Alabama was in before moving up to the FCS in 1995.
“What do we have to do to play with the Montanas and the North Dakota States and the Jacksonville States of the world? Do we want to get to that level? I do as a coach,” Willis said. “Is the administration on board? I feel like they are. I feel like they understand it. We do live in the south and the state of Alabama, and it’s pretty much football or bust.”
So when North Alabama comes to Missoula, the Lions are focused on potentially getting a statement win, but Willis also sees it as an educational excursion that could be beneficial for North Alabama’s team, athletic department and fans.
“Now we get to go play a program that’s one of the top FCS programs in the country in Montana, so I’m going to take notes,” Willis said. “I want to visit with their staff. I want to see how they do things. Hopefully down the road years from now we’ll be in the talk of the playoffs once we’re eligible for it.”
He added: “I think this is good for us. I think our fans need to see how they do it with 25,000 packed out. We need to take what goes on the field, and we need to take off the field with it. North Dakota State, I was in awe of what they bring in financially out there. It’s just unbelievable. We’re not on that level.
“We just hope to take bits and pieces from all the teams.”