Bill Clark's team fought through injuries to win Conference USA's Western Division, but the Blazers were embarrassed by FAU, 49-6 in the C-USA Championship Game. UAB then let an early lead slip away in a 31-17 loss to Appalachian State in the New Orleans Bowl to finish 9-5 overall, including a 6-2 mark in conference play. But finally, the long, strange offseason is officially over, and the Blazers are ready to kick off the season against the Central Arkansas Bears.
Central Arkansas was a late addition to the schedule after UAB lost its originally scheduled season opener against New Mexico State, which is one of 54 programs to cancel or postpone its fall season. The Bears posted a 9-4 record last year, which included an upset victory over FBS opponent Western Kentucky, and opened the season with a 24-17 victory over fellow FCS squad Austin Peay. UAB will be the first of three FBS opponents UCA is set to play in 2020.
Central Arkansas at UAB
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 3, at 8 p.m. ET
When Central Arkansas Has the Ball
Though Central Arkansas got a much-needed spark from running back Kierre Crossley, who finished with 110 rushing yards and one touchdown on just 13 carries last week, the Bears offense will typically go as far as quarterback Breylin Smith takes it. Smith earned Second Team All-Southland Conference honors as a sophomore last year while setting the school record with 3,704 passing yards and tying the Bears all-time mark with 32 touchdowns. He was 26-for-49 passing with 283 yards and one touchdown in the win over the Governors last week — but he was also intercepted twice. Smith’s favorite target, Lujuan Winningham, who caught six passes for 80 yards, was on the receiving end of a 10-yard touchdown pass with 0:34 on the clock to seal the victory.
However, yardage could be difficult to come by this week. UAB led Conference USA and ranked No. 8 nationally last season in both total defense (301.9 yards allowed per game) and passing defense (183.6). The Blazers ranked ninth in the country in yards allowed per play (4.71) and return most of the players that helped lead the way — plus All-C-USA caliber cornerback Brontae Harris, who missed the season with a foot injury. Outside linebacker Jordan Smith, one of the top pass rushers in the nation, racked up 17.5 tackles for loss and 10.0 sacks a year ago. Kristopher Moll was close behind with 16.0 TFLs and 9.0 sacks and also accounted for 104 total tackles. Both Smith and Moll were credited with four forced fumbles.
When UAB Has the Ball
The UAB offense flashed promise and explosiveness in 2019 but didn’t perform well in terms of traditional statistics. The Blazers scored just 23.1 points per game, which ranked No. 102 overall, and averaged 351.9 total yards per contest, which ranked 105th. Nevertheless, quarterback Tyler Johnston III ranked No. 9 nationally (tied with Trevor Lawrence) averaging 9.0 yards per pass attempt. Johnston completed 59.0 percent of his passes for 2,250 yards and 17 touchdowns in 11 games, but he also tossed 15 interceptions. Big-play receivers Austin Watkins Jr. (the only returning 1,000-yard receiver in Conference USA) and Myron Mitchell are back, as is the running back trio of Spencer Brown, Jermaine Brown Jr., and Lucious Stanley, who all reached 400 yards on the ground last year.
Spencer Brown ran for 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018 but was slowed by injury last season. Listed at 230 pounds last year, Brown has reportedly slimmed down in an attempt to increase his quickness as a senior. That should be good for his yards-per-carry average, which dipped to 3.77 in 2019. Five returning starters on the offensive line should help as well.
The Central Arkansas defense held Austin Peay to 333 total yards, 75 of which came on the first snap of the game. Thanks in part to the presence of FCS All-American cornerback Robert Rochell, UCA allowed 5.5 yards per pass attempt, holding the Govs to 14 completions on 33 attempts, including an interception by freshman Tamaurian Wilson. The Bears surrendered 152 rushing yards on 38 attempts — four yards per carry overall and just 2.08 after the first-play TD run.
Central Arkansas was able to knock off some of the rust of a long offseason, and the Bears were able to get to Birmingham right away after playing last week in Montgomery, Ala. It’s a short week against a superior opponent, but UCA has tried to make the best of a difficult situation.
After surviving a scare from FCS Alabama State in the opener last year, UAB put together a very good season led by one of the best defenses in the country. Thanks to the return of a veteran group of playmakers on both sides of the football, the Blazers are among the favorites to win Conference USA. If Johnston is more consistent and the offense takes a step forward, it could be a special season.
Prediction: UAB 42, Central Arkansas 10
(Top photo by Kamp Fender/UAB Athletics)