The UAB Blazers will host the Liberty Flames on Saturday night for the first game ever inside the school's brand-new, on-campus 47,100-seat Protective Stadium. This should make for an entertaining contest between two of the top non-Power 5 programs in the nation, led by two of the most respected head coaches in all of college football in Liberty's Hugh Freeze and UAB's Bill Clark. It also marks the first meeting ever between the two schools.
Liberty will look to rebound from a heartbreaking 24-21 loss to Syracuse on the road last Friday night. The Flames rallied back from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter to tie the game at 21 but were unable to capitalize on several late-game opportunities. Malik Willis' fumble with just under four minutes remaining in the final quarter proved particularly costly, ultimately leading to a 35-yard game-winning field goal for Syracuse as time expired. Liberty, an FBS Independent, sits at 3-1 on the season. The Flames will now hit the road again to face the Blazers, where they find themselves in the unfamiliar role of underdog. Liberty has not lost back-to-back games since 2019.
UAB hopes to break in its new stadium by extending its winning streak to three games with a victory over the Flames on Saturday. The defending Conference USA champs bounced back nicely from a Week 2 blowout loss at Georgia with a blowout win of their own on the road against North Texas to kick off conference play. The Blazers also secured a hard-fought 28-21 road victory over Tulane last week, taking advantage of four Green Wave turnovers. UAB enters Saturday night's matchup against Liberty with a record of 3-1 overall and 1-0 in C-USA.
Liberty at UAB
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: UAB -2.5
When Liberty Has the Ball
Willis is the engine behind a solid Liberty offense that averages 418.8 yards and 33.8 points per game. The dual-threat signal-caller has been extremely efficient through the air, completing 71.6 percent of his pass attempts for 818 with 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions, averaging an impressive 9.8 yards per pass attempt. Willis loves to spread the wealth in the passing game, connecting with 18 different pass catchers through the first four games — led by wide receivers Demario Douglas (23 rec., 247 yds., 3 TDs) and CJ Daniels (11, 173, 3).
Willis also spearheads the ground attack for the Flames, leading the team in rushing attempts (51), rushing yards (274), and rushing touchdowns (four). The junior quarterback is aided in the backfield by a trio of talented running backs in Joshua Mack (44 att., 137 yds., TD), Utah transfer T.J. Green (32, 164), and Shedro Louis (26, 140, TD).
The Liberty offense will be paired against a stout UAB defense that allows 330.8 yards and 20.8 points per game, numbers that would look a lot better if not for the lopsided loss to Georgia. The Blazers have been particularly strong against the run, allowing 111 yards per game and just one rushing touchdown all season. That presents a serious problem for the run-heavy Flames, who will likely lean more on Willis' arm in this matchup against a UAB defense that has been far more generous through the air, giving up 219.8 passing yards per game. The Blazers also have surrendered 10 passing touchdowns, and the lackluster UAB pass rush has generated just three sacks. However, the Liberty offensive line hasn't exactly been great in pass protection, allowing 14 sacks through four games — including six just last week against Syracuse.
When UAB Has the Ball
Dylan Hopkins seems to have taken over sole possession of the quarterback job for UAB after sharing those duties with Tyler Johnston III through the first couple of games. The junior signal-caller has been masterful so far in orchestrating the Blazers' passing attack, completing 29-of-39 pass attempts for 501 yards with seven touchdowns against one interception, averaging a magnificent 12.8 yards per pass attempt.
Unlike Liberty, the UAB offense doesn't have a wealth of pass catchers at its disposal. But the Blazers have gotten plenty of production from their top receivers — led by All-Conference-USA tight end Gerrit Prince, who has gotten off to a phenomenal start this season with 13 receptions for 269 yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Trea Shropshire (7 rec., 230 yds., 3 TDs) has taken on the role of deep threat, averaging 32.9 yards per reception.
The UAB run game hasn't been great overall, averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry and producing just four touchdowns in as many games. But there is talent in a backfield that features a solid one-two punch in running backs DeWayne McBride (52 att., 281 yds., TD) and Jermaine Brown Jr. (50, 221, 2).
UAB will be matched up against a tough Liberty defense that is giving up just 15.3 points per game and ranks eighth nationally in total defense, allowing 251.8 yards per game. The Flames have been stout in defending the run (allowing 100.5 ypg) and the pass (151.3 ypg), ranking in the top 30 in the FBS in both categories. Linebacker Storey Jackson leads the team with 31 tackles, while defensive lineman Kendy Charles has already racked up a team-high 4.5 sacks. The UAB offense will surely have its work cut out for it against this defense on Saturday night.
Despite returning almost everyone of note from last year's potent offense, Liberty seems to have taken a step back on that side of the football. Willis is still a force to be reckoned with for the Flames, but he doesn't seem to be getting as much help from his supporting cast as he did last season, allowing opposing defenses to focus more attention on the dual-threat quarterback. A strong UAB defense will take that same approach, which should help them contain Willis to some degree. The Liberty defense, however, looks to be every bit as good as it did last season and will present the UAB offense with some serious challenges as well. This should be a tight, hard-fought, game that comes down to the wire. But at the end of the night, UAB will have a little more juice playing in front of a raucous crowd in its first-ever home game at Protective Stadium.
Prediction: UAB 24, Liberty 21
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.