Fall football preview

By on 17 August, 2012 in Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Photo by Elvert Barnes

When the great and mighty summer begins to relinquish her control over Alabama, a concussive ritual emerges, destined to entrance us all until the new year dawns. The heat does not dissipate, at least not at first. But eventually, the leaves wilt and fall amid the clack of plastic shoulder pads and the roar of Alabama mobs in Saturday’s temples and in front of image screens. It is the thing we embrace, and always have. It calls memories of childhood in autumn, year-round bragging rights, and a defining essence of our unique Southern culture. Football season is upon us again, and it won’t stop until 2013.

The two most common ways that Alabama consumes football involve trekking to the stadium monolith (with associated tailgating and pageantry), or else parking in front of a TV and devouring the action (and endless commercials), usually for the better part of a whole Saturday (not to mention the Tuesday and Thursday night games that now pop up on cable channels).

Yet, there is another way. You don’t have to drive to Tuscaloosa, or Auburn, or Troy, or (if you’re really desperate), Birmingham (sorry UAB). Montgomery has a lot of college football action. We may not have curbside recycling pickup, but we do have two sparkling new football palaces opening this year. Our local teams are not going to get a lot of attention on ESPN or the Paul Finebaum radio show, but they do exist at a level that is, in many ways, more pure than the professionalized monstrosity that high level college football has become.

Here’s an overview of the local college football scene, offered with the hopes that you’ll get out there and find some new and interesting ways to consume college football this season.

Faulkner University

League: Faulkner plays NAIA football, which means they will be playing against many schools that you (even if you follow college football) have never heard of. They play some sports in the Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC), which is comprised of 16 schools, which play in two divisions. Another local school, AUM, is in Faulkner’s division, but doesn’t offer football. But Faulkner football is also in the Mid-South Conference, which has 11 full members. Confused? Yes, so are we.

Background: Established as Montgomery Bible School in 1942, Faulkner was renamed in the 1980s for James H. Faulkner. Sadly, the school’s mascot is the Eagles, and not the Fightin’ Newspapermen or the Boy Mayors.

Faulkner has had a football program since 2008. Coach Brent Barker was a high school coach in Texas before coming to Faulkner as a baseball coach. He is also the school’s athletic director and will be in his first year as head coach of the football team. Former head coach Gregg Baker stepped down in November.

The Eagles used to play downtown at Cramton Bowl, but will play this season in the (possibly-still-under-construction) 4,100-seat John Mark Stallings Field at Faulkner Stadium. The field is named after the deceased son of former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings. Stadium-wise, it may be worth noting that last year’s homecoming game was played at Alabama Christian Academy’s Norton Memorial Field.

Will they be any good?

Faulkner made national headlines last November, when they combined to score the most points ever scored in a NAIA football game. It was a triple overtime victory against a school called Union College, from Bourbonville, Kentucky. The game, the aforementioned homecoming game on a high school field, was a ludicrous defense-free shootout. Final score: 95-89, with the Eagles finally triumphing over the Bulldogs.

The football team also got national headlines when it was announced that they would be sending an old guy onto the field as their kicker. How old? We’re talking about a 61-year-old Vietnam War vet, Alan Moore (not to be confused with one of the greatest comic book writers of all time).

Still, 180 point games and elderly kickers are gimmicks. Can they win games?

Well, not so far. The Eagles are coming off back to back 3-7 seasons, which were improvements over the two years before those, when they fielded back to back 2-9 seasons before that. It’s a young program. But even against NAIA competition, it hasn’t been a very good one.

Why you should go to a game instead of your usual college football routine:

They obviously have a high-scoring offense, and are returning an All-American junior quarterback, Josh Hollingsworth, who used to play at Furman. The team will be further bolstered if it turns out that they put Ray Ray Armstrong on the field during games. Armstrong was one of the most skilled players in college football at Miami and it appears that he’ll be transferring to lil’ ol’ Faulkner for the coming season. If he is in the secondary for the Eagles, expect to see a man amongst boys out there, likely the first ever NFL caliber talent Faulkner has ever had.

The Faulkner media guide leaves a little something to be desired (especially the cover), but the new stadium ought to be fun to see. The home opener is September 22 (against a school called Lindsey Wilson), and there’s always a ton of fresh optimism when there’s a new coach. The offense ought to be explosive, so that alone ought to be a reason to go see a local squad in person.


Huntingdon College

League: Huntingdon plays Division III football, which means no athletic scholarships. Although independent this year, the Hawks are moving to the USA South Athletic Conference in 2013. If you are unaware of which fine institutions make up that conference, click here. You might think those schools and mascots are made up, but they aren’t. Go Mary Baldwin Fighting Squirrels!

Background: Huntingdon had a well-respected baseball team for many years, but decided to get into the football business in 2003. That inaugural year, the Hawks went 0-7 and were outscored 343-109, meaning they pretty much got waxed. Football has a high entry barrier. Since then, the team has done a lot better. They hired Troy State football legend Mike Turk in 2004, and as head coach, Turk has been excellent, going into this season with a 51-27 record. The team made it to the playoffs in 2009, losing in the first round to Mississippi College.

Will they be any good?

Mike Turk was one of the best players ever to suit up for Troy State and evidently brings the same passion and leadership to coaching that he brought to the playing field (where he won two national championships and ran the greatest option offense I have ever seen). They have had four winning seasons in a row, but are likely looking to make a deeper run into the playoffs than ever before.

Trevor Manuel is the player to keep your eye one. The running back was a pre-season All-American (second team) and holds a ton of (admittedly new) school records. He’s from Harper Lee’s hometown, so I’m hoping he’s really fast, allowing me to coin the nickname “Sonic Boo(m) Radley.”

Neal Posey is likely to be the starting quarterback. He’s a senior and seems to know Turk’s system. If he is the starter, the offense should be pretty fun to watch. But it’s hard to know, just glancing at the schedule, how good the team will actually be. I love college football, but have no idea about the capabilities of schools like Wesley or Millsaps.

Why you should go to a game instead of your usual college football routine:

Like the other local colleges, the Hawks will be playing in a relatively new stadium, with further expansions planned. It seems like it would be fun to see a game in their stadium there on Fairview, and there are even people tailgating sometimes when we drive by. They are the team that plays closest to our house, so we’re going to try to go to a game on that basis alone. But I might wear a Troy State sweatshirt to show my love for Mike Turk.

Alabama State University

League: The Alabama State University Hornets play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). This means they play in what we old schoolers still call Division I-AA. The proper name is Football Championship Subdivision. ASU joined the SWAC in 1982, where it now plays alongside in-state rival Alabama A&M.

Background: ASU has been playing football since 1901, the year the current Alabama Constitution was written. Although it is not known as a HBCU football power like Grambling or Southern, it does host the nation’s oldest black football “classic” (the Turkey Day Classic) and participates in the one with the highest annual attendance (the Magic City Classic).

ASU has one national championship, when it won the 1991 “Black College National Championship.” They did this by winning the first-ever incarnation of a game called the Heritage Bowl (a strange event launched in ’91 to replace something called the Pelican Bowl, which was played in three non-consecutive years before folding in 1975). Needless to say, when you play in a league that was (and essentially still is) a product of racial segregation, it becomes complicated to call someone a “national champion.”

To understand the history of Hornet football, you have to get into the fascinating history of HBCUs, which brings you to segregated amateur sports leagues, and how that sordid (and sometimes inspiring) history interacts with the influence of the NCAA and the contemporary college football goal for ASU, the I-AA (er, FCS) playoffs.

You need not resolve the ethical crisis of racism to appreciate that, even though the Hornets were often competing against lesser talent, many of the players have showed that they can compete at the highest level. Although it’s hard for HBCU players to make it at the next level, let’s not forget about Walter Payton (Jackson State), Doug Williams (Grambling), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley), Steve McNair and Donald Driver (Alcorn State), Hugh Douglas (Central State), Michael Strahan (Texas Southern), and many others who made it.

On that list from ASU are Tavaris Jackson, who is the most famous ASU football alum and, as of this writing, might be the starting QB for the Seattle Seahawks this year, and local high school football star, Reggie Barlow. Barlow went from Sidney Lanier to ASU to the NFL, where he was a feared reciever and kick returner, and he has been the head coach of the Hornets since 2007.

The ASU media guide is decent, but also contains some embarrassing typos, which isn’t what you want to see if you’re in an athletic department wanting to project a professional image (see, for example, page 3, on ASU’s “academic offering”).

Will they be any good?

If you pay even a slight bit of attention to college football news, you’ve heard that Isaiah Crowell will be playing for ASU. A few months ago, if you were talking with someone about the best running backs in the SEC, odds are that Crowell (University of Georgia) would enter the conversation, along with Michael Dyer (Auburn). Now, due to off-the-field stupidity, Dyer and Crowell are out of the SEC’s spotlight. Dyer will play for Prairie View A&M in Prairie View, Texas, while Crowell will suit up for ASU. That is more high-powered (potential future NFL talent) than the SWAC has seen in some time.

A lot of eyes will be on Kejuan Riley, a talented free safety senior, but ASU won’t win a lot of games simply by shutting down opposing passers. Obviously, Crowell will carry a heavy load on offense, but it is unclear how he is picking up on ASU’s system, and it is to be expected that opposing defenses will base their strategies on trying to stack the line against the run. Still, Terren Jones is a lauded All-SWAC senior offensive lineman (and is 6’7″), so he ought to be opening some big holes for Crowell. A lot of folks are also curious about extremely mobile QB Greg Jenkins, who transferred to ASU from Troy, after arriving there from a community college in Mississippi.

Why you should go to a game instead of your usual college football routine:

For starters, this year will be your last chance to see the Hornets in their Cramton Bowl home. If you’ve driven past the school on I-85, you’ve seen the gigantic grandstand of their still-under-construction new home stadium on campus. The construction won’t be done by the time the Hornets have a home opener on September 8, but they will break in their new home during the Turkey Day Classic (November 22).

You should go see ASU because it’s the best local football and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Crowell. He’s certainly a potential NFL talent. But you might also want to go just to see The Stingettes, the ASU dance line. Or maybe you should go to the Turkey Day Classic (ASU vs. Tuskegee) — good luck getting tickets. Or maybe you can try to drive up to Birmingham for the Magic City Classic (ASU vs. Alabama A&M). Good luck getting tickets to that one too. Still, going to one of the Classics seems like one of those things that every sports fan ought to try to do at least once in a lifetime.

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