Everything's going just perfect — for only the second time in the football program's short history — for the UTSA Roadrunners. But a 3-0 start to the strange 2020 season is going to get a stiff test against host the UAB Blazers in Conference USA play this Saturday at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
It hasn't exactly been a murderer's row of foes that the Roadrunners have taken down in scooting off to an unbeaten opening month. UTSA beat Stephen F. Austin 24-10 at home, then topped Texas State 51-48 on the road and finally edged Middle Tennessee 37-35 last week at Legion Field, thanks to a missed two-point conversion by the Blue Raiders late in the game.
So UAB represents quite a challenge for a team looking to go 4-0 for the first time in its 10-year FBS tenure.
"For them, to be 3-0 is a big deal," UAB head coach Bill Clark told AL.com. "Give (new) Coach (Jeff) Traylor and that group a lot of credit. They are playing really well, really hard and believing. They have won some close games and found ways to win. They are very well-coached.
"They are going to be one of the better teams."
The Blazers themselves are already billed as one of the best in Conference USA. But they have yet — until Saturday — to play a conference contest.
UAB has put together a 2-1 overall start, sandwiching wins over FCS opponent Central Arkansas at home, 45-35, and South Alabama on the road, 42-10, around a 31-14 road loss to a surging Miami.
And they appear to have a psychological edge on UTSA, having won the last three meetings. Included was a 52-3 smackdown in 2018 in the only other tilt played between the teams in Birmingham. Overall, UAB is 3-1 against UTSA.
UTSA at UAB
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UAB -20.5
When UTSA Has the Ball
Traylor says it'll be a game-time decision on his starting quarterback to face UTSA. Frank Harris limped off the gridiron with a knee sprain just before halftime last week and didn't return. So it was fellow junior Josh Adkins going in and throwing for 233 yards and a touchdown in the victory over South Alabama. It was his first action of the year since Harris entered the season as the unquestioned starter.
"Planning around both possibilities," Traylor told reporters early this week. "They both have to do well, and we will do what those guys can do. If Frank is 100 percent, we will go with him on Saturday, and if not, then Josh will go."
Whoever starts has a package of reliable pass-catchers to target. Senior Brennon Dingle leads the team with 168 receiving yards on 12 catches. Joshua Cephus has a team-high 19 grabs for 119 yards and three touchdowns. And fellow sophomore Zakhari Franklin got in on the action last week with six catches for 119 yards and a touchdown. Running back Sincere McCormick has eight catches, while Sheldon Jones and De'Corian Clark have seven each.
But where sophomore McCormick really shines is out of the backfield. He had 82 yards on 19 carries last week, which brings his season total to 377 yards on 67 carries. He ranks in the FBS in rushing ;— only SMU's Ulysses Bentley IV has more with 380 yards.
McCormick and whoever is at QB will have to find a way to escape the clutches of linebackers Noah Wilder and Kristopher Moll, although Moll may miss this game — along with safety Grayson Cash — due to injury. Wilder and Moll are 1-2 on UAB with 21 and 19 tackles respectively, and Wilder has two sacks, to boot.
But if UAB's defense can hold UTSA from getting into the end zone, there's always Roadrunners senior placekicker Hunter Duplessis, who's made 16 straight field goals to own the FBS' longest active streak.
When UAB Has the Ball
The Blazers have their own star at running back, with Spencer Brown second to only Clemson's Travis Etienne in career rushing yards for active FBS players. With 3,428 yards over four seasons, Brown gives defenses all they handle. Last week, he had 105 yards on 20 carries for 36 career rushing touchdowns, which set a UAB record, passing Pat Green's total from 1991-94.
It wasn't the only high point in the win over South Alabama, as fellow senior Austin Watkins Jr. enjoyed a career day with 183 receiving yards. Watkins hauled in seven balls, including a 56-yard catch, and a 15-yard final-quarter touchdown. He's racked up 287 yards on 17 receptions on the year. The only other key receiver so far for UAB has been senior Myron Mitchell, who has 241 yards on 15 grabs.
At quarterback, it's redshirt freshman Bryson Lucero's chance to shine. He started last week with junior Tyler Johnston III sidelined with a non-throwing shoulder injury. Lucero did get the victory, completing 18-of-28 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. He's 29-of-49 for 457 yards on the season.
But he'll likely get a big challenge this Saturday in UTSA, which saw a freshman step up against South Alabama. Jamal Ligon set a program mark with 19 tackles and was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week. Ligon has 25 tackles on the year, including a team-best 13 solos and 2.5 sacks. He's joined by sophomore Rashad Wisdom, who sports a team-high 28 total tackles and 12 solos.
There's little doubt the Roadrunners are pumped by their early-season success.
"The kids are excited," Traylor said. "We have a long way to go. There is a lot of stuff out there that we didn't do well. Winning is the best deodorant ever created. We can cover up a lot of stuff that we stink at. The kids are excited about being there."
A 4-0 start would be nice for UTSA but likely not in the cards. It's Homecoming Week with a little extra motivation on top of that.
"It is a big game for us," Clark told AL.com. "This is Children's Harbor week. One of my favorite weeks of the year is Homecoming and Children's Harbor game, where we wear the alternate uniforms with the names of patients on the backs. Our kids know these folks. We have been doing this for a while. It is one of the great things that we do in our program."
But there's one other factor in UAB's favor — the Blazers are just the better team.
Prediction: UAB 40, UTSA 20
(Sincere McCormick photo by Jeff Huehn/UTSA Athletics)