Earlier this week, the WAC-ASUN coalition released its conference schedule for 2023 and there is more clarity and organization than last season for the league. There are still several minor quirks that need to be worked out with one of them being North Alabama's opponent for their game at Toyota Field, the home of the AA Minor League Baseball team the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
Last season, North Alabama faced Jacksonville State in the first football game played at the Madison, Alabama ballpark. An overflow crowd of 10,124 witnessed Jacksonville State defeat the Lions 47-31. Despite being panned by critics for having enough room for one operational end zone, the game was a success.
This season, the Lions may have difficulty replicating last season's game attendance as Jacksonville State has since moved to Conference USA. The Lions have five home games and four realistic choices at the moment, with an opportunity to add another home game since they have only 10 games scheduled. Their season opener with Chattanooga is likely out of the question as the Trash Pandas do not end their season until mid-September.
September 23: Tennessee-Martin
The Skyhawks may make the most sense of all of North Alabama's home opponents. Tennessee-Martin went 7-4 and won a share of the Ohio Valley Conference with a 5-0 conference mark. The game will be a marquee non-conference game for not only North Alabama but the WAC-ASUN.
Furthermore, the Skyhawks could bring a solid traveling party as Martin is less than 250 miles from Madison, Alabama. The Skyhawks and Lions are renewing an old rivalry, as the two have met 32 times before, but the last meeting was in 1990. The ballpark backdrop would be perfect for the renewing of this old rivalry.
September 30: Eastern Kentucky
Eastern Kentucky also makes a lot of sense as the defending WAC-ASUN champions bring a proud tradition and close geographic proximity. The Colonels are a relative brand name in the region and could bring out as many local fans as Jacksonville State.
Richmond, Kentucky is less than 300 miles away from Madison and the Colonels were 22nd in attendance in FCS drawing 12,609 fans per game. Surprisingly, the Colonels and Lions do not have much history with one another as last year's meeting was the first in the series.
October 21: Utah Tech
Utah Tech may be the least likely option due to the obvious concern of distance. Utah Tech does not have the proximity of Tennessee-Martin or the name brand recognition of Eastern Kentucky. Of course, the Lions and Trailblazers have never met on the gridiron. There are few ballparks that residents of St. George would travel across the country to and Toyota Field is probably not one of them.
November 4th: Central Arkansas
The last option is the Central Arkansas Bears. The Bears and Lions have a significant history with each other, meeting 21 times. However, Conway is about six hours away from Madison, so visiting travel may be a concern, but the Bears were 49th in attendance, drawing 7,306 fans per game. Central Arkansas may not be as marquee a game as Eastern Kentucky or Tennessee-Martin, but would still be intriguing.
While Jacksonville State is off the table, North Alabama has plenty of logical options for the second edition of its showcase ballpark game.
The North Alabama media guide was a tremendous help in this piece. Check it out here.