The best story in college football isn’t even a debate. If your answer is anything other than the UAB Blazers, you are wrong. What Bill Clark has done and what his players have accomplished should be the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 one day. UAB didn’t have football two years ago. This year, the Blazers, snubbed at 6-6 for a bowl in 2014, are bowling for the first time since 2004. And they’ll get to go to the sunny Bahamas to do it in the Bahamas Bowl against the Ohio Bobcats. Ohio is favored by more than a touchdown with a total in the upper 50s for this Conference USA vs. MAC clash.
UAB went 8-4 this season with a ragtag bunch of transfers and players that were willing to sit and wait on the return of football. The Blazers were also 8-4 ATS, a sign that not much was expected from the team. Once UAB got to 4-2 with a win over Middle Tennessee State on October 14, you could feel it building. I don’t know if UAB will win here, but you can bet I’ll be rooting hard for them. Ohio really bottomed out late in the year. The Bobcats lost to Akron and then lost a throwaway game to Buffalo after missing out on a spot in the MAC Title Game. Ohio wound up 8-4 straight up and against the spread, but things could have gone a lot better for them. Frank Solich’s team has to wait another year to snap what will now be a 49-year MAC title drought.
They’ve all been unlikely heroes at UAB this season. Quarterback AJ Erdely, who came back to UAB after landing there in 2015, was brilliant with a 16/4 TD/INT ratio and a 61.8 percent completion percentage. He played JUCO in 2015 and then enrolled back at UAB to wait out the downtime when it was announced that football was coming back. The junior became a leader for this team and took tremendous care of the football. True freshman Spencer Brown was the #203 running back recruit in the 2017 class. He rushed for 1,292 yards with 5.5 yards per pop and 10 scores. Erdely added 13 rushing TDs, but had just 2.5 yards per carry. The more notable transfers, Sederian Copeland and Jonathan Haden, originally an Arizona recruit, didn’t factor much into the passing game. Andre Wilson was Erdely’s favorite target, as the two developed a rapport in practice while waiting for games. He had 48 catches for 619 yards with six touchdowns. UAB wasn’t full of explosive plays, with 5.5 yards per play, but only lost 15 turnovers. This was a team playing with a purpose and it deserves to be where it is.
Bill Clark was the defensive coordinator at South Alabama and was a solid head coach at Jacksonville State for a year before getting this job. He selected David Reeves to be his defensive coordinator, a recruiter with a strong background on the defensive line. Opponents only connected on just 51.4 percent of their passes. Overall, the UAB defense allowed just 5.2 yards per play. The run defense did struggle with 4.4 yards per carry allowed, but that tends to be a sign of depth and it stands to reason that a team that didn’t play football for two years would lack depth. That is also a big concern going up against a very potent Ohio rushing attack. UAB hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2004 and that is the only previous appearance in program history. Not only has this program opened eyes this year, but it could also make history. You can bet that UAB is going to be highly motivated and won’t just be happy to be there. This would be the storybook ending to a remarkable season.
The same cannot be said for Ohio. The players are probably excited to be playing in the Bahamas, but what does it mean to them to be playing UAB? That’s where a head coach like Frank Solich comes in. Continuity is a big reason why the Bobcats have been able to thrive during the Solich era. He has been with the program for 13 straight seasons and both coordinators have been there every step of the way. Ohio found a dynamic player this season in quarterback Nathan Rourke and that elevated this offense to heights that haven’t been seen since Tyler Tettleton was behind center. Rourke had a 15/7 TD/INT ratio with a 54.4 percent completion percentage, but really stood out as a runner with 6.6 yards per carry and 21 rushing touchdowns. Ohio, as a team, rushed for 5.6 yards per carry, easily the best mark in program history, and racked up 6.3 yards per play overall. The Bobcats hadn’t been north of six yards per play since 2011. Ohio scored nearly 39 points per game and had 58 offensive touchdowns.
How invested will the Ohio defense be in this game? The offense was terrific. The defense was a little bit worse than last season, but it was the defense that severely faltered against Akron and that is the reason why the Bobcats weren’t in Detroit to take on Toledo. Ohio’s defense has played very well this year with just 5.3 yards per play allowed and just 3.5 yards per carry allowed. The Bobcats also improved greatly against the pass from last season to this season by holding opponents to a 56.7 percent completion rate. Motivation is the biggest key for Ohio here. The goal was a MAC Championship. The goals have changed. Ohio can’t even reach 10 wins. Nine wins would be the most since 2012, which is a nice achievement, but it wasn’t the top goal. What does beating UAB in a destination bowl actually mean? Ohio is clearly the better team with the far more explosive offense and a comparable defense. But, bowl games are a different animal.
Free College Football Pick: Ohio Bobcats -7.5
My guess here is that Frank Solich can get his team sufficiently motivated. A win here would be a good springboard into the offseason, with Nathan Rourke entrenched as the starting quarterback and with a lot of spots decided on the defense. UAB is an outstanding story and I will be rooting very, very hard for them, but Ohio is just the better team. A reasonable level of motivation from the Bobcats and they’ll win this game and should do so comfortably. My raw power rating here is 8.5, so I don’t see a ton of line value, but an invested Ohio team is clearly the better bunch.