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Columbus Lions start their SIFL title defense tonight with season opener against Alabama Hammers in Huntsville

League expanded from six to 16 franchises

By CHRIS WHITE

cwhite@ledger-enquirer.com

The road back to the Southern Indoor Football League championship might be a little tougher and have a few more twists this season for the Columbus Lions, who open the regular season tonight at the Alabama Hammers in Huntsville, Ala.

The SIFL now has under its umbrella the American Indoor Football League, which was home to the Lions for the 2008 and 2009 seasons and brought six teams to the SIFL for 2011.

Add in two teams that made the jump from the Indoor Football League and four altogether new teams that joined the SIFL during the offseason, and the league’s roster went from six teams to 16.

Because of those changes, Lions coach Jason Gibson said he expects this year’s schedule to be tougher than any he has faced in his four previous seasons as the Lions coach.

“Across the board, as far as talent in this league, you’ve got high-caliber players on every single team,” Gibson said. “I think, in the past, there were teams loaded at the top of every league and then some bottom-feeders. There are a lot of middle-of-the-pack teams now, and the competitiveness in this league is just great.

“I promise you won’t see any 99-0 blowouts again this year.”

That growth means more competition for a playoff berth compared to 2010, when the top four of the SIFL’s six teams made the postseason. Now, the winners of each of the Eastern Conference’s three divisions, plus a wildcard with the next-best record, will get a berth.

Columbus plays its South Division opponents, the Albany Panthers and Alabama Hammers, three times each, and the Lions will play two of the games in each series on the road.

“Every single game counts this year,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of pressure to win. I don’t want to miss the playoffs, and I don’t want to have to be a wildcard and have to risk going to Erie (Pa.).”

If last season is any indication, the Lions can expect to face some tough competition to win the South Division. Albany led the SIFL much of last season.

“We’ve been in three different leagues and had success in all of them, so I don’t think being successful will be an issue,” Gibson said. “I think what’s an issue for us is how much more difficult it’s going to be to do that. We’ve got better coaches all over now, and better coaches bring in better players. It’s just a matter of us finding the right people in the right places to be successful, and I think we can do that again in this league.”

Chris White, 706-571-8571; follow Chris online at twitter.com/le_chriswhite and at facebook.com/lechriswhite.

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