All the news this year has been about who is moving and leaving and coming and going. Forgotten by some, is the fact that we have a season to contest. Consider that most of the players on the field will not play in The American, or Sun Belt, or even the future version of this league. This season’s contest is what matters. The opportunities available this season are important to the players practicing and preparing and fighting for spots.
This weekend, the west division of CUSA will be decided, for all intents and purposes, by 22nd ranked UTSA 1 and reigning champion UAB. Should we call them two-time champion UAB? Sure.
UTSA is the team of the moment, currently at 10-0 and every snarky college football blogger’s favorite other team, on account of the cutesy mascot and fresh vibes. The Blazers are respected, and by now most know the story of the Return and recent domination of the conference.
Long time watchers of the league will note that UAB hasn’t quite obliterated the league competition, but winning is winning and no one really remembers how close you came to losing if you carry the trophy at the end.
Consider the Roadrunners’ shaky victory last week, or the even shakier games against WKU, UNLV, and in the comeback vs Memphis. At the highest levels of this competition, it does matter how you got there, but the practical fan knows that UTSA is not a serious contender for the national championship. That fact is a something to complain about at another time. The controllable circumstances are these: Win this weekend and the victor can start seriously scouting the east division ahead of the December championship game.
UTSA is 6-0 in the league including perfect in the division. UAB is 5-1, by virtue of their divisional loss to Rice at home.
If UTSA wins then UTSA would be 7-0 with one to play, and no team in the west could catch them. UTSA would win the division, and would only be concerned with beating out the eastern division representative for hosting. Right now that looks like WKU (5-1) and by virtue of the record, and head-to-head, UTSA would host.
If UAB wins then the Blazers would be 6-1 with one to play, tied with UTSA but would have the head-to-head tiebreaker. UAB would just need win in the finale vs UTEP at home to guarantee the division, and would go through some tiebreakers vs a WKU or other east representative (if it is Marshall, UAB has the head to head and would likely have the better record anyway) to determine the host for the title game. My gut tells me that would be in Birmingham.
In short, if UTSA wins, they are in and likely host the title game 2 If UAB wins they have some business to take care of, but they are in the driver’s seat for the title game.
UTSA is the consensus pick to win this game, by virtue of their talent, coaching, and home venue. QB Frank Harris is a gamer, and on a bunch of lists for postseason awards. Star running back Sincere McCormick is another talent with the ability to bust long ones, but primarily a chain-mover. Out wide are Zakhari Franklin and Josh Cephus among others. The UTSA game plan is primarily to establish the run, but hit you with big tosses to Franklin and other wideouts who can run after catch and beat you over the top. Harris has a beautiful touch throwing the long ball, but is susceptible to throwing terrible interceptions. He hung a few out in the last two weeks, but only Southern Miss took full advantage for a pick-six.
When Harris is on, UTSA looks scary. They can run, hit you for long gainers, and Harris can extend the play and has a knack for making the right play. When they are off, it looks terrible, and they look vulnerable. If that sounds reductive, consider that this is football we are talking about. It is a simple game.
UTSA had a bad game last week vs Southern Miss– perhaps the one they were “due” — in which they could not score, turned the ball over, and could not figure out the clever USM offense until late in the second half. There is an argument to be made that if Southern Miss were slightly less injured, or slightly more disciplined, they could have pulled off a monumental upset. That is the kind of shock that can focus a team that might have been looking at their ranking, and the -29 point spread, and thinking of how big of a number they would put on the scoreboard.
UAB is a machine. The Blazers are at about 28 points per game, right where they have been for the last four years. Bill Clark has his squad a pillar of consistency. They are the same old Blazer squad: heavy on the run game, timely passing and a tough, smart defense. Last week vs Marshall, in a hugely important game displayed the passing ability required to win championships that we saw last season. Dylan Hopkins hit Trea Shropshire twice in the first quarter for all of his 100 yards. DeWayne McBride carried the rest of the load.
At their best, like last week, UAB scores enough and plays tough defense and wins the game. At their worst, they cannot score and the QB play is poor and the defense is not good enough to stop an explosive or lucky offense.
UAB went to Marshall on the road, and took a game away from a team that had designs on winning the league title. It was reminiscent of last season’s final two weeks wherein UAB beat Rice with backups and then went to Marshall and won the title on the road. It was a grind, but UAB controlled the game for large portions.
UTSA Offense vs UAB Defense
The most telling statistic for UAB is not that they held UNT to 99 yard passing, or USM to 32 — both of those teams barely have quarterbacks — no, it was holding Marshall’s potent offense to 5.9 yards per attempt last week. Grant Wells and company had been putting up big numbers all year, with no game lower than 6.5 until this one. UAB controlled the game with the run to limit the opportunities but also shut things down. Wells went 22/39 for 232, 2 scores and the 1 interception. That is roughly the recipe for this weekend’s matchup.
A rough look at the various metrics, and the eye test and it is safe to say this UAB defense is the toughest that UTSA has faced. UTEP and Southern Miss are high-ish in the yards-allowed ratings but that’s mostly because for a lot of reasons you do not need to accumulate yards against a team that is losing in all aspects of the game.
UAB will pounce on those bad throws from Harris, and are tough enough to stop a good run game. Jeff Traylor’s group usually game plan well and expect to see some clever something to start the game. UAB is the league’s second best defense (in terms of rating, behind Marshall) against the pass. UTSA is fifth in passing vs the league.
UAB does not give up big plays (fewest 10+ yard plays allowed vs the league) while UTSA is fourth in the league (behind Western, Charlotte, and Marshall) in getting big plays.
UTSA Defense vs UAB Offense
The number one passing offense (in rating vs the league) is … UAB. Yes, the Blazers have been blazing in six games, throwing for 7 scores vs 2 INTs, 1323 yards, and 220 per game. Coming up behind them is Western, and their ridiculous offense. They have three times more completions and are just a hair behind the Blazers in rating.
If you have been watching — or reading the tweets of UAB fans — that statistic will not surprise you very much. UAB has been timely3 throwing the ball. They do not toss it fifty times a game, but they find their game-breakers like Shropshire or TE Garrett Prince for big time plays and then power the ball into the end zone with the run game. It is effective and classic football.
UTSA’s pass defense is a little shaky, and their pass defense rating suffers a bit for it. They got sliced up by Bailey Zappe (523 yards, 5 scores) and then again by the QB duo in Ruston as they blew away the Bulldogs. Rice (terrible) and Southern Miss (had a running back and WR at QB) did nothing. Dylan Hopkins is good enough to make plays vs UTSA like he did last week, and he will need to be on his game.
And what is his game? Well, it is highly efficient quarterbacking. He is completing 62.4% of his passes including 63% vs the league. Nothing overly special, sure, but he’s hitting 11.1 yard per attempt vs the league. It is simple: he his hitting a high number of passes for big gains.
The run game was good last week even though the Blazers ran for only 88 on 47 carries. The three scores are what mattered. It was situational running, and it won the game. McBride ran for 108, but Hopkins lost 26 yards. You can’t just look at the stats. Last week’s game is a nice template for what we will likely see against an offense that can score: McBride for 108, Prince and Shropshire each with 100 yard games on just 7 catches (10 target).
UAB were happy to grind the game away (37 minutes TOP) when the powerful Marshall offense had to wait their turn. Again, that is the plan. Marshall was good at getting explosive plays, and pretty good at stopping them (second to UAB). UAB out gained them (six plays of 15+ yards passing, and four 10+ running) and allowed only four of the same passing and zero of them running).
UTSA has a talented defense that will pounce on turnovers but will give up gains and so the question is if UAB can execute essentially the same game plan as last week.
Some teams have some magic. UTSA any other season would have dropped one of these games but they have not. They are relatively uninjured and keep finding ways to pull things out. They take on UAB … but at home. They face a good team but one they match up with. UTSA is happy to grind the game out and rely on running and defense. The Roadrunners have the ingredients to make a play — Harris, Franklin, Cephus, McCormick and a kicker with a big leg in Duplessis. The defense is hungry and happy to take the ball away and win the game for the offense. It sure looks like this UAB team but just in blue and orange.
UAB? Well they have some magic as well. The two-game stretch to close out last season was special. No one on the squad is a stranger to a tough, grinding game. They either played in, or played with guys who had won this way. The coaching staff has a winning formula and they are not tweaking it other than to put a QB in that can hit a streaking open talented WR. The Blazers also have talent — Hopkins, McBride, Prince, and Shropshire. The bad news is they have lost those games this season. They got killed by Georgia, but so does everyone. The ones that hurt are the home loss vs Liberty and the Rice game. Maybe it is better to be on the road in San Antonio. Maybe there needs to be more cold, and frost, however?
My brain says UTSA covers because of the totality of positives in their direction and the magic of the season — a 12-point win in which they pull away late — something like a 29-17 game. My gut tells me to never count out this UAB squad, which has been so clutch when it matters in this league.
So here’s the prediction: UAB 27 UTSA 15