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2018 CUSA Football Championship Game Preview: MTSU vs UAB

Depending on your perspective — of course this means if you call Birmingham or Murfreesboro home — UAB either laid an egg or Middle Tennesse produced a gutsy, clutch win by their senior quarterback and talisman Brent Stockstill.

As with most things, the truth is somewhere between those extremes.

The Blazers had been the clear best CUSA team for weeks but that was a function of their ability to reach their potential. Head Coach Bill Clark had motivated his group to peak as they faced their toughest competition in early October — Louisiana Tech and North Texas — and to produce enough to see off the lesser challengers of the league.

UAB football at this point is tough and rough and nothing like the pretty, high-flying offenses that 2018 is so full of. They are a throwback in some respects but can be more properly called pragmatic. Bill Clark just got a raise for his efforts, and is now the highest paid coach in the league. It is more than deserved. He navigated Alabama politics and college football’s short-term memory to keep a squad together, motivated those players, and took the road less travelled on the way to producing a defense-and-run-game first team.

At the league media days he told CUSAReport that it was “insulting” to even consider that 2017 was any kind of a fluke. It seemed like so much talk from a coach at an event where platitudes are freely given. This site always had UAB as a dark horse candidate (1-LT, 2-NT, 3-UAB, were the preseason predictions here) simply because they had the defense to disrupt the league’s best teams and enough of a run game that they could control the game.

When the Blazers dropped an ugly game to Coastal Carolina, it seemed like improvement was a bridge too far. Instead of collapsing, the Blazers rebounded and dominated the league only dropping an odd game to close the season. The unfortunate thing is that the only loss in conference play cost the city of Birmingham a league championship hosting gig. Legion Field originally scheduled the SWAC championship to take place, but quickly reworked the deal once it became clear that UAB was very likely going to host CUSA’s title game the same day.

If the peak came at the right time, the regression is untimely. The beginnings of a slide to something like an average began some time after the destruction of UTSA back in early November. UAB survived a game Southern Miss in OT before struggling mightily with Texas A&M in a non-conference game on the 17th.

Playing Middle Tennessee in on the road in Murfreesboro was always going to be a little tougher than say, going on the road to El Paso, but only because the Blue Raiders are coached by one of the league’s best in Rick Stockstill, and quarterbacked by one of its all-time greats in Brent Stockstill.

Middle, for their part, have not peaked just yet and that has caused some consternation from the internet fan base at least. On paper, as quarterbacked, they are always a threat to win the division, but recent years and recent injury reports have always shown a compromised Middle Tennessee and a program that has taken a back seat to recent contenders. FIU staked out first place for a good portion of this season after beating Middle at home in Miami in what looked like a passing of the torch.

Before that game, Middle struggled to beat a mortal FAU at home, needed a handful of 4th down conversions and a two-point make to steal a victory. Marshall ran out a second string QB who hadn’t played in some time, and Charlotte nearly beat the Raiders in Murfreesboro.

Suffice it to say that the path to the title game — to hosting the title game — was not as much of a coronation and procession as it was for UAB.

Last Saturday’s meeting was still not a CUSA classic, instead an outlasting of an offensively-challenged team. UAB seemingly kept their powder dry, sitting or resting or simply trying to find their way through that game with so many injuries. The loss combined with a relatively unlikely loss (collapse?) by Florida International in Miami meant that we have a surprise game in Murfreesboro.

Before the season picking MTSU to represent the East was not outlandish but it was not going with the crowd. The preseason wisdom was that the Owls of Florida Atlantic would continue their domination and if they failed, it would be Marshall that would jump up and take the throne. As it was, none of that was very wrong. The difference between an undefeated FAU and an Owl team that will not attend a bowl was just a handful of errors in a handful of games. That is, of course, the nature of the game. Last season North Texas represented the West but could have very easily been sitting at home instead of losing the New Orleans Bowl to Troy.

No one should apologize for fortune smiling kindly upon them.

Middle seemingly abdicated their chances after dropping their game to FIU and looking iffy throughout the campaign. Ultimately, they pulled out enough plays at the right time to get wins. That is a dangerous game to play, and one that will not earn you fans — twitter didn’t like it, most definitely — but staying close enough to allow your all-time great quarterback to make plays for you late is a strategy that got them here. Again, FIU simply wasn’t ready and could not win the games they absolutely needed. MTSU benefited from some unfortunate Blazer injuries but many teams have benefited from Kid Stockstill spending time in the training room.

Again, fortune should be embraced.

This game should be very different than last week’s. For one, there is the championship on the line. The rhythms of this game are different than that of the regular season, heightening the pressure. The main characters should not be negatively effected, and might even produce a higher level of play. The other guys are questionable.

Who are they? There is no telling. Each program has had a big game and produced. UAB won at home and away in two huge games this season. MTSU overcame a deficit late against FAU and won last week.

This game did not include a championship trophy presentation at the conclusion. Those things matter and have an effect.

Line: MTSU -1
O/U: 44.5
Pick: UAB 24 MTSU 21

Notes

The league sent out the following interesing notes:

  • This is third year in a row that a rematch of a regular season game takes place in the title game. The regular season winner is 1-1 since 2013.
  • This is the first appearance in the league title game for both teams.
  • This is the second year in a row where both entrants were first timers. FAU beat UNT 41-17 last year. In 2013, Rice beat Marshall in a battle of first-timers.

C-USA CHAMPIONS

Year Champion (C-USA Record)
* 2017 Florida Atlantic (8-0)
* 2016 WKU (7-1)
* 2015 WKU (8-0)
* 2014 Marshall (7-1)
* 2013 Rice (7-1)

UAB notes

  • 9-3, 7-1 — both are program records.
  • A win would give UAB the program’s first 10-win season
  • 41 sacks by UAB is a program record.
  • Bill Clark is now the highest paid coach in the league.

MTSU notes

  • 7-1 in league play is the best since joining CUSA, and the best league record since MTSU went 7-1 in the Sun Belt
  • Middle is 20-3 in the last 23 CUSA home games
  • A win would give MTSU the first 9-win season since 2009, and the first league title since 1992 (Ohio Valley Conference)
  • Middle is 4-3 all time vs UAB, and won 3 of the last 4, including 3-0 at Floyd.
  • MTSU is 2-0 on CBSSN

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