Once-dominant North Alabama team again vying for D-2 title

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Bobby Wallace has North Alabama on the brink of another Division II national title two decades and three head coaching jobs after building the Lions into the dominant team of the 1990s.

North Alabama (11-1), which won three straight championships from 1993-95, will face current D-2 juggernaut Northwest Missouri State in the championship game Saturday in Kansas City, Kansas. The playoff regular is trying to return to the top in its first title game in 21 years.

''Back in the mid-90s, UNA was THE Division II team, and that was something that the university took pride in,'' Lions quarterback Jacob Tucker said. ''It's not like we've been down for the past 20 years. The program's still been good. There's just been that playoff hump that a bunch of teams haven't been able to get over.''

This isn't necessarily the North Alabama team even Wallace expected to clear those hurdles. The Lions had to replace three-year starting quarterback Luke Wingo and faced FCS power Jacksonville State and two ranked Division II teams in the first four games.

They lost the opener against the Gamecocks but have won 11 straight since, with the Florida Tech game cancelled because of Hurricane Matthew.

Tucker has emerged from a three-year role as North Alabama's backup to become a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II's equivalent of the Heisman. He has passed for 2,661 yards and 21 touchdowns while leading the team in rushing with 902 yards and 16 TDs.

''When we came into this season, our first five games were just a very, very difficult schedule,'' Wallace said. ''We were worried about coming out of those first five even with a winning record.

''Our offensive players just got better and better. Of course, everybody wondered how Jacob Tucker would be as the starting quarterback, even though we all knew he had talent. He's done remarkable. He's really the leader of the team. He's been probably the surprise player in the nation this year, because some people weren't really sure about him or didn't know about him.''

UNA fans certainly knew about Wallace when he returned in 2012. He had left the Florence, Alabama school after the 1997 season for Temple, where Wallace went 19-71 during eight seasons.

He returned in 2007 to coach North Alabama's Gulf South Conference rival West Alabama for five much more successful seasons and then ''retired'' again before returning to Florence, Alabama after a season off.

Wallace has led the Lions to four straight league championships since his return. Tucker and the rest of the senior class have gone 39-9.

Wallace was determined to tweak the formula used by predecessor Terry Bowden, who had brought in some high-profile recruits who had been dismissed from programs like Florida State and Florida. His aim is to build the core of his team around prospects recruited and developed out of high school, though transfers like linebacker Darius Wright from East Carolina have played key roles.

Wallace said he started to realize this team's potential after a 24-23 victory over then-No. 3 West Georgia on Oct. 1. The Lions scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally from a 23-10 deficit.

The Lions have won the eight games since West Georgia by an average of nearly 33 points, advancing with a 23-13 semifinal win over Shepherd. And the northwest Alabama town of about 40,000 has something to celebrate in December again - besides the holidays.

''With the small community that Florence has, a lot of people rally around UNA football,'' Tucker said. ''For us to be returning to the national championship, it's got the birds buzzing. People are talking about it. People that I haven't talked to all year are coming up to me and stopping me in the streets when I'm going to get a bite to eat.

''They just want to talk about the game. And that makes it special.''

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

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