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UAB vs North Texas: 2018 West Division Championship

The headline seems hyperbolic but it is not. UAB can essentially clinch the division with a win on Saturday against North Texas. Tech would need UAB to lose two of the next four in conference and NT would need UAB to lose three of the next four.

As it stands, UAB just might win this division even if they lose. Yes, because of the tie breaking scenarios, if UAB, NT, and LA Tech were to have a three-way tie, NT could be eliminated by the eighth tiebreak: most recent team in the conference championship game is eliminated.

Nothing is cleaner than a win-and-you-are-in scenario, however, and this comes the closest. The two heavyweights of the division not wearing dragon insignia are Tech and UNT, and one has been vanquished. For the Blazers, hosting the Mean Green on Homecoming and Children’s Harbor Day is a best-case scenario.

For North Texas, the toughest matchup of the year is for the division. Last year in Denton, a weaker North Texas team jumped out to a lead but allowed a furious comeback led by the arm of AJ Erdely. Bill Clark played it safe and kicked the PAT instead of going for two with 30+ seconds left. North Texas had a long kickoff return and a long Jeff Wilson run set up a short, game-winning kick.

UAB has been wanting that one back since. Given the strengths of both defenses this time, we should not see another 46-43 offensive epic, but we could see some scoring.

North Texas has not faced a run offense this good since FAU in the CUSA title game last year, and has not seen a defensive line since Troy in the New Orleans Bowl.

Jaylon Ferguson was certainly a problem for NT’s offensive line in the Louisiana Tech loss, but the entire UAB line can wreak havoc.

That said, Mason Fine had a good day in Denton against this group, and had been playing mistake-free football. That is winning football on the road. The key for NT has been the defense this season, and they have been stout against the run.

UAB presents some unique problems, as highlighted in this post on MGN.

Having to account for the QB means you cannot load up against the run the same way you could against other teams.

Later, LA Tech sold out to stop the run and AJ Erdely made them pay by scooting around the end. A good QB run game makes you play perfectly on defense.

The Blazers do not allow many tackles for loss, and this puts Blazer running back Spencer Brown in the best position to get one-on-one with an opposing safety.


Blazer Key To Victory

  • Control the Clock
  • Get to Mason Fine

For North Texas, having the better quarterback is not going to win things. Mason Fine is good, but he and the pass offense have not been as efficient as they could be. CUSA Report discussed this back in September, and it still holds true. A large part of the reason for this has been the run game.

Loren Easly is injured and out for the season. He was breaking tackles and running hard for a North Texas offensive line that makes the occasional mistake in the run game. Without him, head coach Seth Littrell has had to rely on reminding his backs — JUCO transfer DeAndre Torrey and redshirt sophomore Nic Smith — to run hard and physically.

Last year since-graduated Jeff Wilson ran for 211 yards then and the two current NT running backs have parts of his ability but have yet to demonstrate that they have the power runs mixed with the quick cuts, and the vision.

For UAB, that is a good thing. Out wide, Jalen Guyton has had a year-long case of the drops, and so is just slightly off the standard he was at last season when he was on a tear. Rico Bussey Jr. has been amazing this season, and will present a problem. One or two wideouts with talent is within the realm of defend-ability for the talented Blazer defense, but North Texas has more than just those two.

Bussey and Guyton have thus far combined for 1043 and 12 scores on 76 catches (125 targets), while sophomore Jaelon Darden has 355 and two scores on 25 catches (31 targets).

Darden has had a breakout season and can beat the average slot defender one-on-one. He will be key as North Texas takes on a good UAB defense. Mike Lawrence, the 2017 leading receiver for the Mean Green, has not had the kind of season as he did last season.  The Mean Green and Lawrence have faced different defensive schemes and this can largely explain the lower numbers.

There is only one ball to go around, after all. Lawrence is still dangerous and is normally Fine’s safety blanket. Oh, and do to forget Kelvin Smith, the TE/H-back who is sure-handed and also a great blocker.

With all those talents the Mean Green have a tendency to be inconsistent.


North Texas Keys to Victory

  • Catch the football
  • Get off the field on third downs

UAB is at home and is playing for the ‘name on the back‘ in a game that can essentially win the division. Many have made the argument that this is the biggest game of the program’s history. That kind of momentum can bring energy and focus, but it can also bring unnecessary pressure. Bill Clark has done an incredible job with his team and the Blazers should be prepared for North Texas.

North Texas comes in with the better quarterback, a more explosive offense, and the knowledge that this game will determine whether or not NT will hit one of their goals: playing for a conference championship.

Vegas and the advanced numbers say this game is a toss-up. The line has gone from UAB -1 to NT -1 back to UAB -1.5. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ has this game going North Texas’ way by .01 points. Yes, it is a close one.

Terrible prediction:

NT 31 UAB 21

The difference between these two teams is simply that NT has the better QB, and usually in close games like that the difference makes itself evident throughout. This game can go any way and it would not be surprising.

photo credit: drjoshuawhitman Birmingham Skyline Panorama via photopin (license)

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