The UAB Blazers and Jacksonville State Gamecocks are set to meet Wednesday in the 2021 Montgomery Kickoff at the Cramton Bowl. It’s rare for an FBS program to play an FCS opponent at a neutral site, and the midweek matchup and ESPN primetime placement means the entire college football world will be watching, which adds intrigue.
UAB won its second Conference USA championship in a three-year span in 2020 and captured its third consecutive West Division title. The Blazers beat Marshall 22-13 in the championship game to improve to 6-3 overall and 3-1 in C-USA play but did not play in a bowl game. Jacksonville State’s 2020-21 season began in October and ended in May. The Gamecocks lost to Delaware 20-14 in the FCS Quarterfinals to finish 10-3 overall and 6-1 in their final season of Ohio Valley Conference action. Among the 10 victories was a 19-10 win over FIU.
UAB vs. Jacksonville State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Ala.)
Spread: UAB -15.5
When UAB Has the Ball
The Blazers lost all-time rushing leader Spencer Brown, but UAB should have a potent rushing attack. DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown Jr. are expected to team up in the backfield. McBride averaged an incredible 9.3 yards on 47 rushing attempts as a true freshman in 2020, finishing with 439 rushing yards and four touchdowns. It will be exciting to see what he can do with a heavier workload. Brown ran for 250 yards and a touchdown on 63 carries and added 32 receiving yards on eight catches. Expect him to line up all over the formation, as he was named to the Paul Hornung Award Watch List, which is presented to the nation's most versatile player, earlier this summer. Larry Wooden, Lucious Stanley, and Mississippi State transfer Lee Witherspoon add depth at the running back position.
UAB was incredibly balanced last season, averaging 200.0 rushing yards and 201.3 passing yards per game. Quarterback Tyler Johnston III returns and should make career start No. 18 for the Blazers Wednesday. Johnston completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 843 yards and seven touchdowns with just one interception in five appearances last season. He likes to push the ball downfield and averaged 8.7 yards per pass attempt, which would have ranked second in C-USA had he played enough to qualify. Dylan Hopkins, who missed last season but has starting experience, is the backup. Bryson Lucero, who made five starts in 2020 while Johnston dealt with injury, is the No. 3 signal-caller.
Top targets Austin Watkins and Myron Mitchell are gone, leaving Trea Shropshire as the top returner in receiving yardage (310 yards). Shropshire caught 14 passes, including two touchdowns, and averaged 22.1 yards per reception. He came up huge in the Conference USA Championship Game with five receptions for 180 yards and a score. Tight end Hayden Pittman is the leader among returning players in catches (19), and Gerrit Prince led all Blazers with four touchdown receptions (4).
When Jacksonville State Has the Ball
Like many teams across the country, Jacksonville State returns most of its lineup. The Gamecocks will also get the added boost of quarterback Zerrick Cooper, who did not play in the spring. After throwing for more than 3,400 yards in both 2018 and '19, Cooper was 54-for-81 (66.7 percent) for 671 yards and one touchdown with one interception in four games last fall before being sidelined by injury. The former Clemson backup also ran for at least 300 yards in each of the two previous seasons and gained 82 yards and scored five times on the ground in 2020. Zion Webb, who completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns with eight interceptions and ranked third on the team with 399 rushing yards and five touchdowns, returns as well.
Josh Samuel and Uriah West form a solid running back duo and split the workload almost exactly last season. Samuel led the team with 773 rushing yards on 139 carries, and West managed 687 yards on 137 attempts. Both scored eight touchdowns on the ground and caught another. West added 17 receptions for 195 yards, and Samuel chipped in with 197 yards on 14 catches. Tight end and leading receiver Trae Berry transferred to Boston College, but Dave Russell (26 rec., 352 yds., 3 TDs), Michael Pettway (18, 239, 2), and Ahmad Edwards (17, 284, 3) return.
UAB has been one of the most consistent and successful programs in Conference USA and should again compete for the league crown. Defensively, the Blazers boast some of the top players in the league, including edge rusher Antonio Moultrie, defensive lineman Tyree Turner, linebacker Noah Wilder, cornerback TD Marshall, and versatile Kristopher Moll, who moved from linebacker to safety. Losing fourth-round draft pick Jordan Smith hurts, but head coach Bill Clark dipped into the transfer portal for a trio of potential starters from Power 5 programs (like Smith, who arrived from Florida) to offset the loss.
Clark, a Jacksonville State alum and former coach of the Gamecocks, knows Jacksonville State will be a difficult opponent. Cooper has the talent to earn an invite to an NFL training camp once his collegiate career ends, and the defense, led by defensive end D.J. Coleman and safety Nicario Harper, held opponents to 17.6 points and 92.3 rushing yards per contest last season.
The Blazers should win, but this won’t likely be the typical FBS-FCS blowout. UAB likes to run the football and play good defense, and Jacksonville State won’t be intimidated after beating FIU and playing Florida State close last year. Expect a close game early, but for UAB to pull away in the second half.