Records: UCA (1-0), UAB (0-0)
Game Time: 7:00 pm CST, Thursday, September 3rd
Location: Legion Stadium, Birmingham, Alabama
Radio: WJOX 94.5 FM
Series Record: First meeting
Betting Line: UAB -11.5, O/U 48.5
Attendance Guidelines: UAB has not announced a revised attendance capacity, but given the size of the stadium, the Blazers should be able to welcome all of their fans with ample social distancing in place. No tailgating is permitted.
I never thought we would arrive here, yet here we are. The kick-off for Conference USA’s 2020 season is on our door step, with both UAB and Southern Mississippi set to take to the field on Thursday night, pending coronavirus test results. I think I speak for all of us when I say it’ll be a very comforting feeling to see the teams we love take the field in a safe manner.
Central Arkansas Outlook
The Bears captured the national spotlight last Saturday by being one of the first Division I programs to return to the field. Central Arkansas used a last-minute fade route to take a 24-17 win over Austin Peay, the defending co-champion of the Ohio Valley Conference. It was an exceedingly sloppy game marred by dropped passes, poor special teams, and missed assignments. Understandable, given that both teams had extremely limited practice time before stepping into the ESPN spotlight.
UCA’s star quarterback Breylin Smith struggled with his accuracy throughout the contest, but like veterans do, he stepped up and delivered when the game was on the line. Smith completed 26-of-49 passing attempts for 283 yards, good for just 5.8 yards per drop back. Smith was picked off twice by Austin Peay, but he had several other passes that he was lucky the defense wasn’t able to come down with.
Smith’s passes were distributed, as eight Bears caught two or more passes. Lujuan Winningham was the recipient of the game-winning touchdown toss, while Tyler Hudson hauled in five catches for 82 yards. Tight end Jack Short enjoyed a 27-yard reception and could become a larger factor in the passing game for UCA this season.
Senior running back Kierre Crossley paced the offense with 110 yards on just 12 carries. The undersized back found the end zone once, his first score since 2018.
Defensively the Bears did a great job bouncing back from an Austin Peay touchdown run on the first snap of the game.
If we factor out that 75-yard touchdown carry to start the game, UCA gave up just 10 points and 258 yards after that first play of the game. The Bears were particularly stingy on third down as Austin Peay converted on just three of 17 attempts. Austin Peay quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall completed just 45% of his passes and didn’t manage a touchdown pass through 31 attempts.
While the Bears were effective on the defensive side of the ball, they weren’t very disruptive. Jalen Bedell had the Bears’ only sack, and the defense recorded just three tackles for loss. They’ll need to be much more explosive against an FBS opponent to have a shot at pulling the upset.
Best news for the Bears — not a single positive Covid-19 test following last week’s game. UCA took off to Birmingham immediately after their game with Austin Peay, and have been living and practicing in a team bubble throughout the week.
Your 2019 C-USA West champions are back with something to prove. After claiming the 2018 title, the Blazers slid a bit last season despite their nine wins on the year. UAB was absolutely smoked by FAU in the C-USA championship, and couldn’t quite keep up with Appalachian State in the New Orleans Bowl.
As my astute colleague Steve Helwick pointed out this week, UAB only had one victory over a program with a record better than 4-8 last season (Louisiana Tech). The Blazers feasted on inferior competition, but were a step behind the tougher programs on their schedule last year.
With most of last year’s production returning in 2020, UAB is well-positioned to retake the crown in Conference USA.
The Blazers’ defense is certainly their strength, and a massive one at that. Linebackers Kris Moll and Jordan Smith will be in the running for Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year this season. UAB’s third linebacker, Noah Wilder, is also no slouch. The trio combined for a ridiculous 242 tackles, 44 tackles for loss, and 32 sacks in 2019. Goodness gracious.
Cornerback Brontae Harris returns from injury after making the preseason watch list for the Jim Thorpe award twice. The Blazers were just fine without his services last year, so UAB will likely have the deepest defensive backfield in the conference, if not the G5.
While the Blazers’ defense will nearly ensure their place among the top of the conference, the offense needs a touch of work before UAB can be considered the likely conference champion.
Quarterback Tyler Johnston III has all the talent to lead this team to the promised land, but he needs to break his habit of forcing high-risk throws. While Johnston passed for 2,250 yards last season, he had a sub-optimal 17:15 TD to interception line.
Johnston will welcome back two of his favorite targets in wide outs Austin Watkins and Myron Mitchell. Watkins surpassed the 1,000 yard mark last season, while pulling in six touchdowns. Expect another huge season from the freakishly athletic senior.
Lastly, there will be a lot of eyes on running back Spencer Brown this fall. Brown rushed for 2,556 yards in his freshman and sophomore season, but managed just 566 yards (3.8 YPC) in 2019. Brown has slimmed down over the offseason to add speed. If Brown returns to form in 2020 then the Blazers will be ready to take the next step.
The Bears are in a really tough spot this week. Conferences are usually pretty good about making sure teams do not play with at least six days off between games, but you can throw all the norms out of the window in 2020. On top of the limited rest, the Bears haven’t slept in their own beds since August 27th. That’s a grueling road trip for a professional athlete, much less a collegiate athlete that isn’t used to such demanding travel. Don’t forget, these guys have to stay on top of their school work as well!
I think UCA would be facing a daunting task against any FBS opponent given the quick turnaround since Saturday, but a contender for a conference championship is even more tough of a challenge. The Blazers are big, fast, and physical. They’re going to challenge UCA on every single snap, but that’s not to say UCA isn’t capable of playing at UAB’s level. They did beat Western Kentucky on August 29th last season — WKU would then go on to finish second place in C-USA East.
All things considered, this challenging situation will likely prove to be exhausting for UCA. The Blazers also have the advantage of having updated film on the Bears, while UCA will game plan exclusively off of last year’s film.
Final Score: UAB 35 UCA 17