When the clock strikes zero on Saturday night in Rome, Ga. at Barron Stadium the curtain will fall on the small Georgia community’s hold as the host of the NAIA Football National Championship as well as the hopes and dreams of one of the two teams seeking their first ever national championship in NAIA football.
This year’s game will mark the 10th consecutive NAIA football championship that I have attended and the twelfth in a row that I have seen live (I watched the 2002 and 2003 broadcasts at home on television. Remember the “Empire Sports Network” anyone?). Somewhere packed away in storage are the VHS copies of those games. Yes, VHS but I digress.
While the City of Rome has been home to a great historical tradition of college football, neither of the two programs in this year’s title game can stake the same claim. After all, the City of Rome is home to “the mother who saved college football” when congress was looking to ban the sport nearly 100 years ago. It was the mother of a deceased teenage football player who stepped up and voiced that it would be her son’s desire that the sport continue to be played. If you do not believe the story, just pay a visit to Jefferson’s on Broad Street in Rome this weekend as the historical plaques are in displayed on the street corner. The City of Rome is certainly a football town and that aura will be missed next year when the game moves to Daytona Beach.
The same passion and desire burns in the bellies of the athletes from the University of the Cumberlands and Grand View University has they head into their first ever trips to the NAIA Footbal National Championship.
Cumberlands and Grand View only have 35 years of football tradition combined between their programs. To put that into perspective, realize that Grand View Coach Mike Woodley has spent more time on the gridiron at 39 years as a coach than the total history of these two teams. In fact, Grand View’s trip ties last year’s national champion Marian University for the fastest trip to the national title after a program’s inception at six years. In an effort to expand their athletic department, Cumberlands began their program in 1985, which is still considered a relatively young college football program.
This is also marks the first time in back to back years that none of the teams in the game have a national title in their trophy case since 1972-73. In those years, the NAIA had two divisions of college football (DI/DII) and East Texas State, Missouri Southern, Abilene Christian (Texas) and Northwestern (Iowa) all picked up their first national titles in those years.
The newness of the national championship is where the resemblance of these programs ends. There are few similarities in how these teams attack opponents on offensive. Grand View has been very balanced with their running game while focusing on two very solid wide receivers as their main targets of the passing game. Cumberlands plans to run the ball and then run the ball some more. Their 359 yards per game on the ground is the most in the NAIA since William Penn in 2010. Both teams are solid defensively with Cumberlands adopting more of a bend don’t break mentality while Grand View has been know to demoralize opponents who try to run the football on their vaunted defense.
The NAIA is loaded with great coaches who have flown under the radar as they have built their programs into national contenders and this year is no different with Grand View’s Mike Woodley and Cumberlands’ John Bland. Both coaches were assigned the task of getting their teams to an NAIA national title game and both have done it in a fairly quick fashion. Bland lands in the title game in just his eighth season at UC while Woodley has made it to the chipper in just his sixth season. Both coaches are eerily similar too, spending time in the Houston area, Bland at Rice University and Woodley at Sam Rayburn High School, and in NCAA DI football with Woodley at Iowa State.
One thing you have to earn to be on the coaching staff of either team is trust. Both Bland and Woodley employ many assistants who have been with them since they began their tenure at their respective schools.
Quotes from the Coaches
Last week I had an opportunity to talk with both coaches and get their thoughts on the National Championship game and how they have been able to make it to Rome, Ga.
Coach Mike Woodley of Grand View University Quotes:
On the quick build of the program:
“We have a great administrative team that supports us, from the President to the Athletic Director to the financial aid director. They’ve supported us and given us everything within reason we need to be successful on and off the field. They committed to improving our facilities and allowed us to get out and recruit athletes that can help us win.”
On the play of quarterback Derek Fulton:
“When he started as a freshman last year we knew we had a pretty good one. With his improvement this year he’s really emerged as a leader.”
On wide receiver Brady Roland:
“We feel like we have the best wide receiver in the nation with him. He’s a tremendous athlete and can catch and run better than anyone in the nation.”
On Jason Gladfelder’s play this season and leadership:
“We feel like he’s the best linebacker in the country. He’s our marquee guy. But what he brings to the table is that effort everyday in the offseason in the weight room and on the practice field. He’s a student of the game and always seems to be getting to the football and staying on his teammates.”
On the Vikings All Conference honors:
“The coaches in our league really gave our defense credit this year and that was indicated by our all conference selections. Three of our defensive backs were first team all-conference and that’s almost unheard of in our league.”
On the play of Cumberlands:
“Two of the teams we played later in the season were very similar to Cumberlands. Anytime you play one of those option teams its to your advantage to have a little more time to prepare. They are a cross between option football and the Wing-T with some misdirection and jet sweep.”
On Cumberlands’ offensive athletes:
“They have some fellas that can go. They’ve got a lot of speed and several guys that can house it. We have some speed in our defensive backfield who can keep up, but they are dangerous. I’d be lying if I said we were going go in and shut these guys down, because they are good.”
On Cumberlands’ ability to throw the football:
“They’ve got a good idea on how to throw the football in this offense. A lot of those option teams really struggle to throw the football but these guys have gotten it figured out. They throw the ball a lot better than they get credit for.”
On the focus of this team:
“This team has been unbelievable in terms of having their heads on straight. After seeing Saint Xavier win it and Marian win it, our guys knew we weren’t too far away from something pretty special. Our guys have responded and stayed focus.”
Coach John Bland of the University of the Cumberlands Quotes:
On the injury of Terrance Cobb early in the season and how it changed the offense:
“With Terrance going down, he was such a big part of our offense because we thought he could go the distance every time he touched the ball. But with the progress of Adam Craig being a quarterback, he can run the football and gives us another great option in the backfield. Now defenses just couldn’t key in on one of our runningbacks and they have to account for Adam which helped our offense tremendously as the weeks went on.”
On the play of the offensive line:
“Our offensive line they have always paved the way and that’s been a pleasant surprise again this year. We lost some seniors last year and now we turn around and we have guys that have really stepped up and into roles this season. They’ve done a great job this year and we’ve been fortunate this year to stay healthy and have a very smart group playing for us”
On wide receiver Willie Gibson:
“He’s got tremendous speed and can get behind you and go the distance. Because our running game has been so strong, we’ve been able to get one on one coverage for Gibson on the outside and allowed him to be successful.”
On the defensive line:
“I feel like we have a great group that starts with Nick Smith upfront. I feel like if we faced him, he’d be the best defensive linemen we would face all year.”
On the play of the defensive backs:
“Our secondary has made plays this year. When we got to the playoffs and started facing off with these teams that have these high powered offenses we really elevated our game and stepped up even more.”
On how the offensive backfield have come together:
“Our backs are an unselfish group. They really have the mentality of an offensive line. Sometimes they might have to be the one blocking all game and then the next week they are the one getting the carries. They’ve just been so unselfish this year and they’re never expecting to be the one who gets the ball every time.”
On making it to the national championship:
“I told our team this is a dream come true but when you think about it, it isn’t a dream, this is reality. These are the dreams, hopes and goals that we shoot for every year and this year it is finally happening for our program.”
On the team’s confidence:
“The confidence that this team has is the type that I have seen in other teams when they are playing in the national championship. I’ve see those teams as a coach and as a game committeeman and feel like that’s the type of confidence we have now.”
On Grand View’s defense:
“I think have a very good defensive because they are very aggressive. They get their linebackers and safeties involved in the run game and they are getting down there and attacking. They are very good at making tackles and are very physical. They are well coached. You can tell because they just don’t give up big plays.”
On Grand View’s offense:
“They have a balanced attack and we are going to have to defend them very well if we are going to stop them. We have to continue to not give up the big plays. We have to play solid defense and must continue to tackle well when we get to the ball.”
The Team Comparison
There is no doubt the success of both teams offenses run through their signal callers. Alan Craig has burst onto the scene at Cumberlands to lead his team in rushing, passing and scoring while Grand View’s Derek Fulton leads his squad in rushing and in passing. I’m still researching this stat but this is the first time since at least 2000 that the leading rushers and passers for both teams coming into the game were quarterbacks (My thoughts are that it could be Georgetown – Eddie Eviston and NW Oklahoma State – Al Hunt, but Eviston might not have been the leading rusher, making it an even rarer occurrence).
Fulton is not a quarterback that will wow you with an NFL arm or break the ankles of opponents while running the football. He’s a leader, an extension of the offensive coordinator on the field. Fulton makes good decisions and in his two years as a starter very seldom gets rattled.
Craig enters his first year as a starter for UC replacing four-year UC starter Jay Bright. This season Craig has accounted for 37 total touchdowns for the Patriots while rushing for more than 100 yards four times this season. While UC may not appear to throw the ball much, Craig still makes good decisions when he has to chuck it, accumulating 13 touchdowns passing and just six interceptions
Cumberlands probably has the better No. 2 option to run the football in running back D’Angelo Jordan who has rushed for 1130 yards this season but don’t sleep on the team of running backs that the Vikings will put on the field. The Vikings have four workhorses with over 50 carries each this season led by Mike Perez with 111 carries and 485 yards. Additionally, backup quarterback Dorian Ballentine will come off the bench to be a running threat for the Vikings in what most people would classify as a Wildcat set.
The Vikings have the edge in terms of wide receivers in this game as Brady Roland and Taylor Goebel have found the end zone for 21 touchdowns this season. Roland’s 1220 yards receiving this season has made him one of the NAIA’s top targets and offensive threats. For Cumberlands, their go-to-guy is Willie Gibson, an athlete who will be seen all over the field. This season Gibson has led the Patriots with 638 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver but has also posed a threat as Cumberlands’ main kick and punt returner. Gibson is the type of athlete that Grand View’s defense will have to account for on every play. While his numbers do not reflect that of an NAIA All-American, defenses must respect him like he is one.
Ryan Northcutt and Shane Turnipseed lead Cumberlands’ offensive line with help from Jonathan Morrell and Tor Peterson who garnered all conference honors this season. Grand View saw Marc Osborn, Presley Godson and Tyler Ahrens be named all conference this season with Osborn bringing home the NAIA division’s Rimington Award for the nation’s top center. Ahrens, a member of last year’s JUCO national championship team at Iowa Western has not lost a game in the last two seasons.
On defense the Vikings are led by senior Jason Gladfelder at linebacker, who is a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award an award for the best small college linebackers. Dudley Bickham also helps to anchor one of the NAIA’s top rushing defenses from the linebacker spot along with Adam Wenck. Cumberlands Weston Hazelhurst leads the UC linebacker core after being honored as a first team all conference selection along with Jeremy Gardner who ranks second on the team in tackles.
First team all Mid South Conference selection Nick Smith along with Carson Newman who contributed 16.5 tackles for loss this season anchors Cumberlands’ defensive line. Grand View’s main stays upfront are Cody Redmond and Blake Goodenbour who tallied 26.5 tackles for loss this season.
Grand View defensive backs might be the deepest part of the Vikings team in terms of talent. This fall five of the Vikings defensive backs were named all conference by the MSFA including first teamers Kevin Gilkey, Joe Musselman and Kenny Jones with Lance Lewis and Zach Hollier also picking up honors. The Patriots’ Reggie Murray and Adrian Hightower were named all conference this season in the MSC. Hightower leads the team in interceptions with five while Murray is one of the teams leading tacklers with 43.
Both teams are solid in terms of special teams. They have returners who can get loose and score touchdowns and specialists that typically do not make mistakes. If the game comes down to a field goal the one stat to remember is that neither team has made a field goal longer than 36 yards this season.
Predictions for the National Championship Game
The great thing about how the NAIA championship game is set up is the way the timing of the event plays out. The Sunday and Monday after the semifinals are a blur for everyone involved. The players are letting it soak in that they have accomplished this major milestone, the administration is trying to figure out how the whole event works and parents are frantically making phone calls to figure out how they will get to Georgia to see their sons play.
Thankfully the teams have two full weeks to prepare and get healthy for the title game so that by the time the teams officially setting into Rome on Wednesday, things are not quite such a blur. Even with both teams being completely new to the situation, they will still be very prepared for what the other team has to offer.
The toughest part of this match up is Cumberlands offense. Very few teams in the NAIA run the ball like the Patriots do. All season long, Cumberlands has been the toughest matchup for everyone on their schedule because facing a veer/option look is completely different than what most teams run from week to week.
Grand View is going to be able to counter the offense of the Patriots with the experience they have gained this season against two of the NAIA’s top rushing teams, Tabor and William Penn. It’s even more advantageous for the Vikings that both of these teams came within the last few weeks on the schedule.
While UC posses the NAIA’s top rushing attack, Grand View’s defense has also proven they can shut down the run this season. In the Vikings’ games against Tabor and William Penn they only allowed 109 yards and 212 yards respectively, 203 yards and 62 yards below their season averages.
If Cumberlands wants a chance to win the national title, they will have to keep Grand View on their heels with an effective passing game much like they did in the semifinals against Carroll College.
Grand View has a very balanced offense that must take care of the football if they are going to beat Cumberlands. If the Vikings turn the ball over UC has the type of game plan that will just grind away on the defense of Grand View. Part of the reason why William Penn was able to stick within eight points of Grand View was the fact that GV gave up the ball twice on fumbles. But as luck would have it, Grand View also capitalized on a William Penn interception as Lance Lewis took an interception to the house for the first touchdown of the ball game.
Both teams are fairly solid in terms of taking care of the ball as Cumberlands is +11 in turnover margin on the season while Grand View is +8. If Grand View takes care of business with the football, they will have the advantage on offense.
The one fact that is hard to stat is how these teams have been tested this season. Cumberland has been in close games and won by seven points or less this season four times while Grand View won by five and three points to start the season and weren’t tested again late until William Penn. Given UC’s ability to come back and overcome deficits this season it would be tough to pick against the Patriots in a tight game.
Athlete for athlete, these two teams are nearly dead even. Both teams posses athletic, mobile offensive lines and quick agile defensive lines like we have come to expect from the NAIA’s best teams. The one contributing factor that neither team can control for Saturday is the weather. Several of the NAIA championship games in recent years have seen rain on game day and if this year’s contest is played in a downpour one would have to believe the advantage in the game goes the rushing offense of the Cumberlands.
Predictions for the National Title
There is no doubt arguments can be made as to why either Grand View or Cumberlands will win the national championship. Each team has advantages in several key categories and it will all depend on what weaknesses get exploited and what strengths are diminished.
The distinct advantage in this game is the rushing defense of Grand View University. With the way Cumberlands wants to run the ball, the Patriots will have the rather auspicious task of trying to figure out which way the Vikings are coming at them. Grand View’s defense literally comes at you from every angle, which will give Cumberlands running game fits in the championship game. If Cumberlands is able to run the ball on Grand View, watch out. The final score for this game could be in the 40’s with the last team to touch the ball winning the game.
There is no doubt that Cumberlands also has a great defense and will have a solid game plan for how to shut down the Vikings. However, the Patriots have giving up a lot of points to good teams this year and Grand View has the type of defense that will slow down the Patriot offense and not allow this game to become a shootout.
In the end, it is going to be Grand View’s defense slowing down the UC running game for the difference in Rome, Ga. The Vikings have proven week after week that when they are faced with a tough opponent, they step up and shut down the opposition.
Final Score Prediction: Grand View University 28 Cumberlands 17
Thanks again to everyone for a great season of NAIA College football. From the athletes, to the coaches, to everyone else involved, I truly believe this is the greatest level of college football. The commitment to be involved at this level is second to none.
As for Rome, Ga., I am going to miss coming to this community every year to watch the NAIA Football National Title. The people I have met are some of the most genuine I have ever been around. They’ve welcome fans into their town every year with open arms and allowed us to be the merriest group of college football fans in the country. Thanks to everyone from Rome involved in making the championship such a great event year after year. A personal thanks to people like Bill Petersen, Bob Berry, Ann Hortman, Rachel Rogers, Matt Green, Jeremy Bruce and my guy JT from the Old Havana Cigar Shop. There are countless others that have contributed to the success of the championship game in Rome, Ga., so please don’t be offended if you were left off the list. It goes without saying that Rome, Ga. is the definition of Southern Hospitality and one of the most special places you could ever visit in the country.
Saturday cannot come soon enough. Here’s to looking forward to seeing everyone in Georgia for the NAIA Football National Championship!