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Conference USA Championship Game Prediction and Preview: UAB vs. Middle Tennessee

Conference USA Championship Game Prediction and Preview: UAB vs. Middle Tennessee

Conference USA Championship Game Prediction and Preview: UAB vs. Middle Tennessee

A first-time Conference USA champion will be crowned on Saturday when UAB and Middle Tennessee square off at Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro. While UAB has never won its conference in its history, Middle Tennessee has won it 13 times — though never in Conference USA (11 times in the Ohio Valley, twice in the Sun Belt).

But raise your hands if you saw this coming for UAB. Before last season, the Blazers' last winning season came in 2004, and you have to go all the way back to '01-02 to find the last time UAB posted consecutive winning seasons. It’s a welcome sign for a program finding its identity in the second season since returning from a two-year hiatus.

Sometimes a conference championship means a rematch of teams who met earlier in the season. In this case, though, the Blazers (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) and Blue Raiders (8-4, 7-1) will battle for the second time in eight days after meeting to close out the regular season. It was nearly a wire-to-wire win for Middle Tennessee, who allowed an opening-quarter field goal before rattling off 27 straight points. Brent Stockstill was his usual efficient self, completing 22 of his 29 passes for 261 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Chaton Mobley was the only Blue Raider with double-digit carries, rushing 14 times for 52 yards.

A win could have kept UAB undefeated in conference play — which would have meant hosting the C-USA title game — with the Blazers’ only two previously losses coming to Coastal Carolina and Texas A&M. But the offense fell flat on Saturday, as A.J. Erdely was just 9-for-20 passing for 90 yards and an interception. Even worse, the team as a whole rushed for minus-1 yard, since Erdely lost 48 yards by himself, largely by virtue of sacks.

The head-to-head record is close over the history of this series, though it has been characterized by a tale of two periods. The teams met three times from 1995-2000, with UAB winning two of the three. After a 12-year gap, the series resumed in 2013, and Middle Tennessee has won three of the four since, including last Saturday’s 24-point victory.

UAB at Middle Tennessee

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 1:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Middle Tennessee -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. UAB's defense among nation's best

Powering the Blazers to a 9-3 mark in the regular season and a spot in Saturday’s conference title game has been its defense. UAB enters Saturday with the nation’s eighth-best total defense (287.2 ypg allowed) and the ninth-best scoring defense (16.7 ppg).

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While the Blue Raiders did score 27 in last week’s matchup, expect UAB to tighten up defensively and prevent a duplication of the offensive success that Stockstill and Middle Tennessee enjoyed on Saturday.

2. Turnover battle

One area where Middle Tennessee excels is in the turnover category on both sides of the ball. The Blue Raiders are among the top 40 nationally in both turnovers gained (20, tied for 37th) and turnovers lost (15, tied for 36th), showing a propensity to generate big plays defensively while minimizing those mistakes on the offensive end.

Against a team like UAB which features such a stingy defense, minimizing giveaways is incredibly important. Middle Tennessee’s ability to do just that — including quarterback Brent Stockstill throwing just six interceptions in 382 pass attempts — is a key ingredient in its recipe for success on Saturday.

3. Revenge factor

The only time that two teams from the same conference would meet more than once is in the case of their conference championship (or, now in the College Football Playoff). Rarely do teams get to see each other a second time in the same season, but when they do the rematch tends to be a little closer the second time around. These teams have seen what the other will bring to the table, both from the personnel and game plan aspects. Granted, there will surely be some wrinkles thrown in that were not present in the regular season, but for the most part the familiarity between the two sides will aid in preparation for Saturday’s championship game.

Middle Tennessee’s offense gained more than four times the yards that UAB amassed — tallying 394 to the Blazers' 89. With UAB's defense still ranking near the top nationally even after that performance, that game was more than likely the exception rather than the rule. Don’t expect the Blazers to come out that flat again on Saturday.

Final Analysis

While the regular-season matchup between UAB and Middle Tennessee might have appeared one-sided, the Blue Raiders had a complete team effort and dominated both offensively and defensively. UAB has shown it can hang tough on the shoulders of its defense, though, having held opponents to single-digit points on six occasions this year while scoring at least 28 points seven times. Sequels don’t tend to be reruns of the first edition, so while it’s not a lock for UAB to win, it wouldn’t be at all a surprise if the Blazers stormed Murfreesboro and exited with the program’s first-ever conference championship.

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Prediction: Middle Tennessee 29, UAB 26

— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.