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2020 Football Conference Championship: Marshall vs UAB

There is a good argument that this season should not have been contested. The time for litigating that is in the past, however. The season was contested and the rules were set and followed. UTSA played more games and had more wins in the west but also lost the head-to-head game against UAB. In the end, UAB won based on the rules that were agreed upon.

Marshall is a deserving champion, as they were the best team in the entire conference all season. COVID did its thing and games were cancelled or rescheduled.

This matchup is between two teams that play good defense. While Marshall has historically had the better offenses under Doc Holliday, UAB and their not-so-great passing offense has three trips to the title game and one conference title under their belt. This league has struggled with an identity since the 2013 and 2014 league reshuffles and has alternated between upstarts and powerhouses. Rice upset Marshall in ’13, WKU dominated for a while, and so did FAU. UAB has been a constant presence but does not quite fit in with the all-offense, points-machines that were Marshall, WKU, FAU and even some of the championship game loses like Tech, UNT, and even Middle.

It is notable then, that both of these teams have terrific defenses. It is not so much clash of styles but a meeting of like minds. Bill Clark has built his team on defense and the run game. Marshall under Doc Holliday has been top-four in the league since 2018. 1. Accumulation of yards is is different than being committed to running the ball. If you saw North Texas, who led the league in rush yards at 230 per contest, you know what I mean. UAB is about running the ball. They will throw it, but they think of themselves as a team that will rely on their run game in times of distress.

Marshall has been very good at stopping the run but has had a few bad performances. Take last year’s Charlotte game in which the 49ers throttled the Herd for 256 (5.02 per carry) and a couple of scores. Or UCF putting up 310 in the bowl game. This season there have been no such mistakes. Even the 20-0 loss to Rice was not really on the defense. Rice — a run-first team — managed only 2.76 yards per carry in that one.

Marshall

Holliday won the league in 2014 against Tech but has been on a kind of stumble-fest since. There was a really poor season among some rebuilds where the defense was stout and the offense just short of good enough.

This year has been a return to form. Marshall is back in the top-two of the league in scoring. The last time they were there or higher? That 2014, title-winning season. There is a caveat to consider here that may explain a little of the face-plant that happened (at home!) vs Rice: the average yards per play for this team is 6.08. That is a good number but a rough guide for the marker between good and great is the 7-yard-per play barrier.

Consider that the 2014 Marshall team that won the title and only had the one one-point blemish against WKU averaged 7.59 per play. The 2013 team that finished with four losses (including the Rice one) averaged 6.41 yards per play. For comparison and context, consider that the ridiculously good LSU team of 2019 averaged 7.58 per play.

Suffice it to say that this Marshall team’s offense is decidedly better than the previous iterations but it has the potential to look silly and self-implode. This is not a knock, as all football teams are prone to self-harm by virtue of being comprised of humans. The real marker of this team is the defense, anyway. They lead the league in yard per play against at 4.14, followed by UAB at 4.64.

How Did Marshall Get Here?

  • W EKU 59-0 — The Herd thoroughly destroyed a hapless Eastern Kentucky.
  • W App State 17-7 — A big win over a ranked team catapulted Marshall into the national consciousness.
  • W at WKU 38-14 — We thought WKU was a little better, but this was a nice division win
  • W at La Tech 35-17 — A big win on the road against a consistent contender.
  • W FAU 20-9 — Beat the defending league champs in a convincing fashion.
  • W UMAss 51-10 — Stat padding affair that flexed some muscles.
  • W MTSU 41-14 — Beating bad teams thoroughly is a sign of a good team.
  • L Rice 0-20 — This was a shocker but there was a long break in between.

This short schedule has three clearly impressive wins — App State, FAU, Tech — and one awful loss. Grant Wells has been nice at quarterback and performed solidly in an area where Marshall had been lacking for a while. Lost in the glow of his 4-TD performance in the first game and clutch decision making against App State were that he struggled over the next four games. He threw four scores but also four interceptions in that time.

If you consider the teams with reasonable-to-good defenses, Wells struggled. Against App State, Tech, FAU, and Rice he threw all of his nine interceptions and just four of his league-leading 16 TDs. 2

There is reason to be wary of the young Well’s ability to solve the UAB defense, which is tough and difficult. The Herd’s Brendan Knox ran for 1300+ last year and is up to 820 in this one. He was stuffed on his 20 carries vs Rice — only 76 yards or 3.8 per. He carried the load against Appalachian State and that took some pressure off of Wells.

Marshall blew a huge chance to be in the discussion for the best G5 program with that awful loss. Given the youth at QB that is disappointing but understandable. As Coastal Carolina, Cincinnati et al have discovered, relying on the committee to declare that you are going to the next step is out of your hands no matter how good you were. Winning league titles is all you can control and that should be some kind of conciliation for the Herd.

UAB

The three-time defending West division champs are back, and just as frustrating as ever. UAB’s Bill Clark gets some national shine but there are some rumors that his cohort in the league are a little annoyed at the manner in which Clark has built his roster. UAB was famously cancelled and returned using some exceptions to the normal requirements on grades and roster limits. 3

The Blazers play tough defense, run the ball, and well, win. UAB scored a respectable 29.3 per game this season, good for a third place tie with Tech in the league behind NT and Marshall. They have been just about the same team they have been since The Return: run-first, throw the ball to win. UAB put up just 217 through the air against Rice but each of the passes was a huge, game-turning attempt. It is an old-school approach that has served to get results.

When weaker teams allow UAB to throw, they blow teams out. When good teams face the Blazers, they grind out games. The Blazers are putting up about 5.87 yard per play, which roughly within a half-yard of their average over the last two seasons. The same-old UAB doing the same-old UAB things.

How did UAB Get Here?

  • W CARK 45-35 — The Blazers tried a few new things and let Central make it closer than it actually was.
  • L at UM — 14-31 — D’Eriq King was the difference in this one. The run game went nowhere also.
  • W at USA — 42-10 — Blazers threw for 300+ against an overmatched team
  • W UTSA 21-13 — A more impressive (and consequential) game than it first appeared. Held UTSA to 4.49 yards per play.
  • W WKU 37-14 — Dominated a poor WKU team.
  • L ULL 20-24 — A ranked ULL broke the win streak at home. The offense did not overly impress.
  • L at La Tech 34-37 — Tech came back. The run game dominated. The pass game was scorched for 338 even though they held Tech’s run game to only 49.
  • W at Rice 21-16 — A clutch win with a lot of walk-ons. Tyler Johnston III thew three big passes (two for scores) and got clutch first downs late. The defense came up big when it counted in the 4th.

Because UAB has been so consistently good in the conference it is reasonable to expect the next step from them. They played well against Miami, but the three-time division champ should be doing better, no? Where is the upset. The same can be said of the home loss to ULL. That is the kind of game that can get the kind of national recognition that this league has been wanting.

Still, as with Marshall, all that matters are the games in front of you. UAB was clearly inferior to FAU last season but is reasonably similar to Marshall. Both have talented defenses and both have guys on offense that can make winning plays. The difference is just that UAB has been better in the bigger games than Marshall has. A clear example was that Marshall dropped a big game vs Rice and UAB went on the road and won against that same team.

The Game

UAB at Marshall from Huntington, West Virginia at 7pm Eastern. The game will be on CBS Sports Network and called by Rich waltz, Aaron Taylor, and Jenny Dell.

Since 2013, when the current version (mostly) of this league came into being, the East has won 5 of 7 titles. The last winner from the West was UAB. Florida Atlantic are the current champions.

This will be the sixth straight time the game has been held at the East division home. UAB was the only team to win on the road (vs Middle) in 2018.

Marshall opened as -7 point favorites with the over/under at 40.5.


Marshall had been playing good football until the face-plant against Rice. That was a one-sided face-plant, however as the offense did just about everything wrong while the defense was reasonable.

UAB has contact tracing absences against Rice but came up big when it mattered. Rice had the lead for a bit and looked like they were going to pull it out and put UTSA in the title game until the second half when Tyler Johnston threw a couple of big touchdowns.

So we have a Marshall defense that is not likely to give up those kinds of plays against a UAB offense that will be perfectly content to play field position all game. The challenge here is that UAB will likely have to hit on some passes to win this thing. Rice let some Blazers behind them and the Herd likely will not make the same mistake. The good news is that some of the regulars will be back for UAB.

UAB’s defense got big sacks and major stops when it mattered. They were helped by an injury to Rice’s Jovani Johnson however. Johnson looked good early, finding Jordan Myers on some nice corner routes. All in all, Rice did some good things vs the Blazer defense for about a half. Marshall’s Grant Wells has played well this season but as we mentioned, he struggled against good defenses. UAB can stop the run but can they stop a Brendan Knox?

A UAB looks like this: Timely throws to the play-making wideouts and a grinding run game that includes lots of QB runs for clutch first-downs. The defense gets some turnovers from Wells and pulls out big field goals to win a close one.

A Marshall win looks like this: Grant Wells is able to shake off the poorest performance of his young career, thanks to a heavy dose of Knox and the Marshall run game that carries the offense. UAB threatens for a while but doesn’t have enough offense to overcome a 10-point deficit late. Marshall pins their ears back and gets to Johnston III late when the comeback requires downfield passing with seven-step drops.


  1. There was even last year in which Marshall finished 2nd at 193 per game and UAB was at 150, good for 8th in the league

  2. It is also important to note that the combined TDs of UNT’s two starters far surpasses Wells here. Austin Aune threw about 100 fewer passes and has just three fewer TDs

  3. Clark was allowed to sign a larger class than the normal 25, and there were some exceptions made for qualifiers. UAB built the JUCO guys’ grades up to make them eligible in the interim. See this article for a nice, if fawning, summary.

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