Blazers, Owls meet for first time since 2014 with C-USA supremacy at stake
Both the UAB Blazers and Florida Atlantic Owls can cite end-of-season momentum as a critical reason why they are battling to become Conference USA champions on Saturday. The Blazers and Owls finished the regular season with identical 9-3 records, but the season outlook appeared quite different for both sides at various points in 2019.
UAB — who won the West division for a second straight season — started strong with five wins in six games and the only loss coming at Western Kentucky by a touchdown. But the Blazers scored just nine points in their next two games, a 30-7 loss at Tennessee and a 37-2 loss at Southern Miss. UAB rallied to win its final three games, however, beating UTEP 37-10 before a pair of one-score wins over Louisiana Tech and North Texas to close the season.
Florida Atlantic's start to 2019 was not nearly as pleasant, as the Owls fell 45-21 at Ohio State and 48-14 against UCF to begin the season. But, like the Blazers, the Owls picked up steam and dropped just one of their final 10 games, a five-point loss to Marshall. FAU closed with wins in its final five games by an average of 22 points per game, including a 35-24 win over Western Kentucky on Nov. 2 that put the Owls ahead of the Hilltoppers for the East division crown.
These two teams met six times from 2008 to '14 — squaring off every year except 2012 — with FAU winning four of the six matchups. Half of those games have been decided by at least 14 points, the other half by three or fewer points. UAB won the last meeting, a 31-28 victory in Boca Raton, which snapped FAU’s three-game win streak in the series.
Conference USA Championship: UAB at Florida Atlantic
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: FAU -7.5
When UAB Has the Ball
UAB managed to post a nine-win season despite some major struggles on the offensive side of the ball. That's hardly an exaggeration, considering the Blazers rank in the bottom third of the FBS in scoring offense and total offense, sit in the bottom 20 in third-down conversion rate, and have thrown the third-most interceptions (17) among all FBS teams. That’s the negative side of the Tyler Johnston III-led offense. The good news is that, when he doesn't turn the ball over, he possesses the second-highest yards-per-completion rate among qualifying quarterbacks, passing for an average of 15.8 yards per completion that ranks only behind Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts.
Since Johnston has passed for 211.8 yards per game, it stands to reason that his receivers wouldn’t have stellar numbers. But Austin Watkins Jr. ranks fourth in the conference — and among the top 50 nationally — in receiving yards (890 total, 74.2 per game) and sits second in yards per reception (20.2), trailing only teammate Kendall Parham and his 21.0 average. On the ground, the Blazers have been middle-of-the-pack this season, rushing for 161.0 yards per game. Spencer Brown and Lucious Stanley combine for 87.7 yards per game with 12 total rushing touchdowns.
The Owls certainly must be excited for this matchup, as they enter as the FBS leaders in interceptions (19) and total takeaways (29); Meiko Dotson is tied for the FBS lead with eight interceptions. FAU isn't nearly as strong in the yardage and points categories, especially after allowing 93 points to Ohio State and UCF. Overall, the Owls rank slightly better than the national average with 382.6 total yards allowed — though they sit 12th out of 14 teams in Conference USA by allowing 246.1 yards passing per game.
When Florida Atlantic Has the Ball
The Owls possess the conference's highest-scoring offense (34.1 ppg) and best red-zone offense, scoring on 91.1 percent of their trips inside the 20. Not surprisingly, quarterback Chris Robison finds himself near the top of many C-USA leaderboards. He ranks second in the conference in passing yards (3,129) and touchdowns (22), both top-30 marks nationally.
Robison and the FAU offense feature a true receiving threat in tight end Harrison Bryant, who has 965 yards receiving and six touchdowns, both good for third among Conference USA pass catchers. There is, however, a sharp drop from Bryant to Deangelo Antoine, the team’s second-leading receiver with 25.5 yards per game less than Bryant on nearly the same number of receptions. The ground game, meanwhile, isn’t incredibly explosive but rather very efficient. As a team, the Owls rush for just 154.2 yards per game (8th in C-USA) with running back Malcolm Davidson accounting for nearly half of them at 64.8 yards rushing per game. He is among the nation’s best on a per-carry basis, ranking 12th among qualified FBS rushers with 6.4 yards per carry.
Remember that part about UAB winning despite a lackluster offense? It's thanks in large part to a defense that has been among the nation’s best this season. The Blazers have recovered 13 fumbles, which leads the conference and is tied for third nationally behind Notre Dame and Illinois. The Blazers also rank in the top six in both passing defense and rushing defense, which puts them fifth in the FBS in total defense at 269.8 yards per game. Teams have thus had a hard time scoring on UAB, as the unit has surrendered just 18.5 points per game in 2019.
There will be two incredibly intriguing elements at play when these two teams meet on Saturday. One is the battle of strengths — Florida Atlantic’s potent offense against UAB's stifling defense — and the other is a strength-weakness collision, UAB's uninspiring offense against FAU's incredibly opportunistic secondary. Both sides come in riding a wave of momentum, and UAB will once again face a worthy challenger in its quest for the Conference USA crown.
Prediction: Florida Atlantic 27, UAB 22
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.