Fans and alumni of the Blazers program this last week were excited as hell when the first National Signing Day of the resurrected program came to fruition before a national streaming audience. A class of 39 players, including many early enrollees and transfers, will make up the first class of UAB Blazers when the program resumes playing in 2017.
But here's the thing: most FBS programs have their non-conference schedules determined well into the 2020's. UAB not only has no football in 2016 but they also only have a 2017 futures schedule. That's a bit of a problem that must be addressed in the coming months.
So, how should UAB arrange their schedule over the next four years? That's a difficult question to project. My guess is that UAB administrators will wait until the start of the 2016 season to assess potential opponents on the field before making their decisions. That being said, here are some opponents that I think could fit the bill.
Power Five Opponents:
The Illini have a lot of vacancies, with seven potential spots for UAB to land on between 2018-2021. Illinois has shown they are willing to pay teams to come play them as they recently agreed to a one-game contract with Central Michigan for the lofty sum of $1.5M. Factoring into this will be the Big Ten's requirements for non-conference scheduling, and UAB's willingness to travel so far north.
Vandy is in a similar situation to UAB, with a need to find opponents and quickly. Currently, they have 10 vacancies between 2018-2021, with three apiece in 2019 and 2020.They could prove to be a good opponent for UAB, as Vandy is an SEC foe, even if they don't have the greatest of gridiron reputations. A home-and-home could also be set up, as the 'Dores have been willing to schedule such games, having already done so with Wake Forest and Northern Illinois.
The Orange are practically begging for opponents. They have ten vacancies, with three apiece in 2020 and 2021, and two in 2018 and 2019. If UAB's 2017 wasn't already decided, they could also make a run for Syracuse's non-con that season as well. Being an ACC opponent, UAB would jump at a chance to show themselves outside of the Southeast, and Syracuse has shown a tendency to be upset-prone at home. Syracuse is also flexible in scheduling, currently boasting multiple home-and-homes and even a neutral field game.
Auburn makes the most logical sense for UAB. They're nearby geographically, the teams have a history, and the Tigers have 11 vacancies between 2018-2021, with three vacancies each from 2018-2020. The branding opportunities are unbelievable, especially on a regional basis, and the tickets are sure to sell out between fans of both sides. It makes mutual sense to all involved. However, Auburn shows inflexibility when it comes to scheduling away games. Only three games of a potential twenty from 2016-2021 require travel, with the 2016 schedule all home games, and the away game in 2019 being on a neutral site.
This would be the dream, the coup d'gras in the entire #FreeUAB saga. UAB walking into Tuscaloosa and facing the almighty Crimson Tide in a triumphant return. The result of this game might not matter as much as the symbolism behind it (though a UAB upset victory might be nice too.) If Alabama tries to pull the "not enough room" card, they'll have nothing to go on, as they have 13 vacancies between 2018-2021.
The Tide's only scheduled games are Louisville on a neutral site and Georgia State and FCS Mercer at home. The obvious roadblock here is that 'Bama won't be willing to "play down" to UAB. If 'Bama and UAB can make nice and figure out some details, the game could gain a nationwide TV audience (thanks to ESPN) and a potential gold mine of money, especially as a one-off.
Group of Five Opponents:
UMass is newly independent and trying to set up as many futures as they can. The Minutemen have five vacancies in 2019, and eight each in 2020 and 2021. UMass can get rid of an FCS opponent and make room as well if need be. The problem here is that UMass has scheduled very early. UAB would have to schedule them either late in the season (where peers would normally schedule an SEC team) or squeeze in and try to fit into UMass' schedule, which could push out another potential opponent on the schedule.
Since their ascent to FBS, Georgia Southern have been bowl-eligible twice and have been among the top of the Sun Belt table. The Eagles' playing style scares off a lot of teams from wanting to schedule them, as no one wants to risk an upset or a bad loss on their record, which makes them an ideal candidate for talks. The Eagles have 11 dates to play with between 2018-2021, with 2020 and 2021 both empty. Who doesn't love to see a good triple option team in action?
You'll want to schedule teams that will most likely be ranked when you play them, so you can show your teeth a little bit. Houston, which showed great promise this past season, could be a great opponent for the return of UAB. It gives UAB the opportunity to step into the fertile recruiting ground of Texas, and the potential for national television as well, thanks to the AAC's deal with the ESPN. The Cougs have eight vacancies from 2018-2021 and are flexible in scheduling different types of series. A home-and-home could be a mutual benefit for both teams.
The fun thing about college football is building regional rivalries. Birmingham and Mobile have a long history together, and being so close to one another, both teams would surely make a boon off of the marketing. Yes, USA is another Sun Belt team, but you take your scheduling where you can get it. USA and Troy are the only other G5 FBS team in Alabama, and USA offers the more intriguing football matchup. USA has only four vacancies in their schedule for 2018-2021, but a home-and-home or a recurring rivalry series could definitely be in the works if both sides consider the benefits.
The Flames are always desperate to show their worth on the football field on the FBS level. Earlier this year, they were in the running for a spot in the Sun Belt that ultimately went to Coastal Carolina, who UAB will play in 2017. Liberty has put up a fairly good product on the field and is considered one of the powers of the Big South Conference.
The Gamecocks, from the Ohio Valley Conference, make an ideal competitive and geographical opponent for UAB, as the 2015 J-ville team nearly knocked off Auburn on the road, and advanced to the FCS Championship game in Santa Clara, CA against North Dakota State this past season. J-ville is also only an hour and a quarter away from Birmingham, which makes travel easy.
North Dakota State
Want to prove you're back on the map as a football program? Why not use the five-time back-to-back FCS champion Bison as a surefire litmus test? NDSU has scored big wins over Group of Five opponents in past years,and have driven P5 programs to the brink as well. They say you have to win against the best to be the best, so, why not risk it? The thing that would ultimately get in the way of this is North Dakota; that's kind of a far trip, and they'll probably want some money.
Any teams I missed? Let me know in the comments!