College football is upon us once more, and No. 5 Texas A&M University-Commerce is poised to face one of its biggest challenges in recent years.
The Lions open the season at 6 p.m. Friday in Florence, Alabama against No. 6 North Alabama in a heavyweight showdown. This will be the first meeting between the two schools.
(Note: the game was rescheduled from Thursday to Friday due to severe weather concerns.)
Three-time defending Lone Star Conference champion A&M-Commerce has been working hard on the practice field since Aug. 7. The Lions were picked to win the LSC again in a preseason poll and made the top 25 in NCAA Division II polls for the 27th consecutive poll.
A&M-Commerce Head Coach Colby Carthel doesn't always like to pay attention to the polls, but says that the honor of being named a top-five team is a show of respect to the growth of the team.
"This ranking represents respect earned and games won in years past," Carthel said. "The guys who were a part of the team back in 2013 are as much of an effect on our ranking as the guys we have now."
Even with the preseason accolades, A&M-Commerce won't have it easy in its first game, as the Lions face off against the national Division II runner-up from last season. North Alabama lost 29-3 to Northwest Missouri State in the 2016 title game to finish at 11-2.
Carthel says that he is very confident in the squad that will hit the field, with 14 returning starters from last year's 11-2 team expected to take the gridiron.
"We are better now with our depth that we've ever been," Carthel said. "All of those good high school classes we have been signing are growing up now."
Carthel also says that the transition with the new players has been smooth as well.
Offensively, players like running back Richard Whitaker, punt returner Shawn Hooks and Commerce local Buck Wilson should expect to see an expanded role.
Carthel referred to his "no-name defense" as a good crop of talented youngsters who have performed well in practice.
Lion quarterback Luis Perez and offensive lineman Jared Machorro have earned preseason All-America honors. Perez threw for 3,326 yards and a school-record 32 touchdowns last season.
The matchup will be tough no matter who is on the field, as North Alabama has been a perennial playoff team with a hostile environment in its favor. Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence formerly hosted the NCAA Division II national championship game from 1986-2013. UNA has a 249-112-8 all-time record at Braly.
"You might think you would like to open with a lesser opponent where you can work out the kinks in the first game, but I don't mind playing a quality team," North Alabama coach Chris Willis said. "It will help us gauge where we're at."
T-minus 4 days pic.twitter.com/bcvFYUJwGX— UNA Football (@UNAFootball) August 28, 2017
After studying video of the Lions, Willis said they look like a top-10 team.
"They are long and athletic and talented like a lot of the GSC (Gulf South Conference) teams we play," he said. "They play in a good football conference and I've been told that their quarterback has NFL ability and will probably be the best passer we face all year. Defensively, they have a very similar look to us in that they have a lot of team speed and are very athletic."
Preseason All-American wide receiver Dre Hall leads the other Lion offense. The 6-1, 190-pound senior caught 80 passes for 1,179 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
Lineman Freddie Reed, a 6-0, 309-pound senior, is North Alabama's only returning starter on defense.
This article is written by Ryan Scott from The Herald Banner, Greenville, Texas and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.