Midway through the season, time for a schedule overview.
The Lions are currently at their midway point of the regular season, having played 4 games and have 4 games remaining. Columbus did not get the season started the way they had hoped. They lost a tough game by a score of 60-65 in Albany in Week 1. But Head Coach Jason Gibson quickly turned the ship around. After the loss to the Empire the Lions got back to work and changed some things up.
Columbus got a new kicker, Ryan Gates, who completely turned around Columbus’ special teams. Then the defense started playing the way that was expected of them from this coaching staff. Following the Albany game the Lions defense is allowing an average of 29 points a game. The next closest defense in the league (Jersey) is allowing 45 points per game. The Lions lead the league in interceptions with 7, in fumble recoveries with 6, and are tied for the lead in sacks with 7. The Lions have been undoubtedly the best defense in the league this year. This defense has had many leaders, but perhaps none more important than veteran Marvin Ross. Ross has more interceptions (4) than the Cobras (0), the Flight (2), and the Sharks (1) combined. Ross also leads the team in PBUs. In a recent interview Ross mentioned how, as a veteran, the game has slowed down for him and his IQ is his biggest strength. He put his intelligence on display last week against Jacksonville in a 3 interception night and overall great game. Other notable names on this defense include team leader in tackles per game Maurice Leggett. The defensive back in three games of action has 20 tackles and 2 interceptions. The defensive line has been stellar all year and has been led by Ulrich Jones, who has racked up 2.5 sacks in only 4 games.
The offense has also been top tier, only being outscored by the Albany Empire. Mason Espinosa has accounted for 28 touchdowns on the year, 26 in the air and two on the ground. Espinosa, the clear leader of the offense, is doing something special this season while leading the league in completions. Not many teams have a guy like this at the helm of the offense. Something you are not able to see in games is how Espinosa approaches practice. He has not taken the role of captain lightly. He is not only willing to give pointers to his understudy, Chase Fourcade, but is constantly working with his receivers to make sure they are on the same page. The leader will make time for everyone from the ball boy to Lonnie Outlaw, his number one receiver. Six foot seven Lonnie Outlaw, who has 31 receptions this year leads the team in receiving yards per game with 87. Outlaw and Deloatch each have 8 receiving TDs on the year putting them in the top 4 in the league in that category. With weapons like Outlaw, Deloatch, Reese and fresh off of an injury Antwane Grant this offense is nearly impossible to stop.
The way this league is shaking up it seems to be in three tiers. In the first tier there are two teams, Albany and Columbus. Albany has had the best offense up to this point and is 4-0, the Lions are 3-1 with the best defense. Tier two is Orlando all alone. They are middle of the pack and could make a jump into the top tier if things go their way in the next few weeks. Tier three is made up of Jersey, Carolina and Jacksonville. These three teams don't have a ton going for them as of now but the season is far from over.
Looking forward on the rest of the season there is little reason to expect the Lions to lose more than one of their remaining games. In fact, I am expecting Columbus to win them all. But that is the beauty of sport, you never know what will happen. It is time to go through each remaining opponent and analyze the match up.
Carolina Cobras, June 26
This weekend we are on the road against the Carolina Cobras. This is the only team in the NAL we have not played yet this season. The Cobras defense recently has been simply miserable, they have allowed an average of 74 points in their last two games. Two weeks ago they lost to Albany, which was expected by many. But last week they did not fix any of their issues that were exposed against Albany, and Jersey capitalized. The Cobras turned the ball over far too many times, allowing three defensive touchdowns in their 65-27 loss to the Flight. However, it is not all doom and gloom for the Cobras. They are tied for the third best record in the league and can definitely turn their whole season’s trajectory around with a win against the Lions. Carolina has some true playmakers on both sides of the ball as well, on offense WR Kendrick Ings has put up 10 touchdowns on only 19 receptions. The Cobras defense is led by linebacker Julius Gregory who has 17 tackles on the season. In game 1 DB Joe Powell put up nine tackles but unfortunately for the Cobras has not been able to play since then.Saturday you should expect the Lions to come up with turnovers and score a lot of points. My prediction for this game is Columbus winning by 3+ scores. I do not think this turnover prone Carolina offense can keep up with the high scoring Lions.
Jacksonville Sharks, July 17
Following the Carolina game the Lions have two back to back bye weeks and will go 21 days without playing a game. This very well could be an issue for continuity and momentum for the Lions, but I expect Coach Gibson to stay tough on these guys and I expect the players to work hard during that time. This team knows what the goal is and anything short of a championship will be considered a failure to this team. After a three week hiatus in game play the Lions will travel to Jacksonville to face the Sharks. You might think you know what to expect here, the Lions did in fact just go to work on the Sharks. But don’t expect a walk in the park for the Lions, the Sharks will have some more games under their belt and be ready for a fight. After playing the Lions one time the Sharks should have a more adapted game plan. Unfortunately for the Sharks they are having a QB battle and their (seemingly ) leading guy, Breckenridge Ruddick, has thrown more interceptions (4) than he has thrown touchdowns (3) this year. I anticipate a slow start for the Lions but for them to turn it around very quickly and have a lead for most of the game and end up winning handedly.
Albany Empire, July 24
The Jacksonville game will lead the Lions into what could be the biggest game of the regular season in the whole league. The Empire will be coming down to Georgia. This game will presumably feature the best offense in the league vs the best defense in the league. The question becomes who wins that battle? Empire QB Tommy Grady and the Empire have been torching defenses all year. They have scored at least 60 points in all four of their games this year, the rest of the league has only done this a combined two times. Grady leads the league in yards per game, touchdowns and completion percentage. To many he is the league’s most valuable player at this point in the season. The Empire offense is very well rounded their running back, Derrick Ross, leads the league in rushing yards per game and rushing TDs with 5. The Empire offensive line has only allowed 1 sack all year. And Darius Prince has been far and away the best receiver in the league. He ranks first in receptions (40), yards per game (134), and touchdowns (17). In comparison to those numbers the next closest player in yards per game is Lonnie Outlaw with 87 YPG. The next closest in touchdowns is Phillip Barnett with 10, and he also belongs to the Empire. They will be very difficult to stop, but if anyone can do it, it is Columbus. While the Empire offense is probably better than the Lions offense the Lions defense is probably better than the Empire defense. I expect a very tight game with multiple lead changes, and the victor to be the Lions. The difference will be the Lions’ home crowd cheering them on.
Jersey Flight, July 31
The Lions final game of the season will be a home game against the Jersey Flight. Columbus absolutely dominated this game from start to finish the last time these two teams met. It was surely the best defensive performance from any team all year, and maybe the best first half of defensive football the NAL has ever seen. The Lions forced turnovers on every single possession that the Flight had except for one possession, and the only reason was because time ran out of the first half. The Lions defense was going crazy and forcing fumble after fumble. The offense played an amazing two quarters as well going into the locker room for the half with a lead of 42-0. Do not expect the exact same scenario in the second meeting and anything can happen between now and then, but under normal circumstances the Lions should win this game 9 times out of 10. My expectation for the final match of the regular season is a big win for the Lions.
If my assumptions of how games will play out across the league are correct, then that will put Columbus into playoffs in either the 1 or 2 seed. But we will see what happens, all we can do now is cheer on our Lions and hope they play to their potential and we will see if we can get that championship trophy back to Columbus.
ABOUT THE COLUMBUS LIONS
The Columbus Lions are members of the National Arena League (NAL). Founded in 2007, the Columbus Lions are starting their 15th season in 2021. The Lions are a 3x league champion and 13 playoff appearances in their rich history. The Lions play their home games at Hughston Field in the Columbus Civic Center. Lions Season Ticket Memberships are on sale now call (706) 322-3336 or visit columbuslions.com. Follow the Lions on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Lionsfootball/, twitter @columbuslions and instagram.com/Columbuslions.
ABOUT NATIONAL ARENA LEAGUE
The National Arena League was founded in 2016 and hosted its inaugural season in 2017 as the premier league in arena football. The National Arena League will kick off its fifth season in 2021. For more information regarding expansion opportunities or partnerships, contact Commissioner Chris Siegfried at email@example.com For more information about the NAL visit www.nationalarenaleague.com, facebook.com/nationalarenaleauge, twitter.com/NALfootball, Instagram.com/nationalarenaleague.