12:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ohio -6.5, Over/Under: 59
The Bowl Season rolls along into the Caribbean, as the reborn Alabama-Birmingham Blazers travel to Nassau to meet the Ohio Bobcats at Thomas Robinson Stadium in the Bahamas Bowl. One of the better stories in College Football this year is the resurrection of Alabama-Birmingham (8-4, 6-2 in Conference USA), who after enduring the outright cancellation of their Football Program just two years ago, has returned with a vengeance, winning a school-record eight games, and as a result will be competing in their first Bowl since 2004. Back in 2014, the University cut the Football Program out of their budget altogether, along with a pair of other Sports due to controversial financial reasons, much to the chagrin of the fan base. However, thanks to a wealth of support from fans and businesses in the region, the Blazers were back in business just six months later. Making things all the more sweeter is the fact that Bill Clark, who presided over the Program when the news broke back in 2014, remained at his post in order to guide his once and future charges back to competitive health. And needless to say, he’s done a helluva job in doing so, as the Blazers finished the Regular Season tied for second in Conference USA’s West Division. As a result, the School rewarded Clark, who is considered by many to be a rising star in his profession, with a brand-new, five-year Contract Extension, keeping him in Birmingham for the foreseeable future. Winners of six of their last eight following a disappointing 2-2 start to the campaign, UAB have been at their most successful when running the football, averaging 190.3 Yards per Game on a healthy 4.5 Yards per Carry. In their case, success on the ground has led to plenty of success overall; the Blazers have rushed for a prolific 213.5 Yards in their eight victories, but have been relegated to just 143.8 in their four losses, though that last figure doesn’t tell the whole story considering they rang up a staggering 336 Rushing Yards against Ball State in a 51-31 defeat, while picking up only three (WTF?!?!) in a 36-7 loss at Florida back in Mid-November. Leading the rush figuratively and literally is Spencer Brown (237 CAR, 1,292 YDS, 10 TD), who as a Freshman ranked second in Conference USA in Carries and third in Rushing, proving to be a reliable workhorse well beyond his years. Furthermore, if it wasn’t readily apparent just how much his team relies upon the underclassman, look no further than to his performance in their wins and losses; Brown shows out in a major way in their victories, churning out a stellar 125.4 Rushing Yards, but has been rather quiet in defeat, managing just 72.3 Yards. Of course, a successful ground game almost always benefits the Quarterback, and in the case of AJ Erdely (61.8%, 2,077 YDS, 7.1 Y/A, 16 TD, 4 INT) that notion remains true, with the Junior Transfer from Middle Tennessee State also factoring heavily into the Rushing Attack himself. In addition to tossing Sixteen Touchdowns, Erdely led the Blazers with Thirteen Rushing Scores, ranking fourth in Conference USA in Total Touchdowns from Scrimmage. When we last saw him, he and his teammates were busy sending hapless Texas El-Paso to a winless season, sealing their doom with a 28-7 victory, in which the Quarterback completed 15-of-25 Passes for 159 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, while rushing into the End Zone for another score as well. Defensively, UAB has been stout, yielding 24.3 Points (45th Overall) on 358.5 Total Yards, while being particularly hard on opposing Quarterbacks, whom they’ve held to a miserable 51.4% passing against for a mere 188.0 Yards, racking up nearly as many Interceptions (Fourteen) and Touchdowns allowed through the air (Sixteen). Linebackers Tevin Crews (95 TKL, 12.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 INT, 3 PD, 2 FF) and Shaq Jones (55 TKL, 12.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 PD, 1 FF) have made a healthy living wrecking havoc in opposing Backfields accounting for Twenty-Four Tackles for Loss and Six Sacks, while Darius Williams (49 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 5 INT, 1 TD, 15 PD, 1 FR) has made his case for Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, ranking second in the league in Interceptions (Five) and first in Passes Defended (Fifteen). However, as athletic and fast as they may be, this unit has proven susceptible to getting gashed on the ground, relinquishing 170.5 Rushing Yards on 4.5 Yards per Carry, including a dismal 233.5 in their four losses this season, which is certainly something that should be kept in mind as they face Ohio’s prolific Running game.
Meanwhile, Ohio (8-4, 5-3 in Mid-American Conference) are heading to a Bowl for the ninth time in the twelve years that Frank Solich has been in charge of the Program, and their eighth in the last nine years. However, they happen to find themselves limping into this particular one, after dropping their final two games of the Regular Season, which ultimately cost them an opportunity to capture their first Mid-American Conference Championship since Solich came to Athens, Ohio back in 2005. Back on November 11th, the Bobcats were sitting pretty in the standings, particularly after thumping Toledo in a 38-10 statement victory, handing the eventual MAC Champions their only defeat in league play. The home side rung up a staggering 532 Total Yards of Offense against the Rockets, including a season-high 393 Yards on the ground, while outscoring them 28-3 in the Second Half. However, the good times wouldn’t last long, for in their following week’s trip to MAC East Division rival Akron, they promptly blew an early 21-10 lead en route to being upset in a wild 37-34 affair, in which both teams combined for 838 Total Yards and Nine Touchdowns. Matters did not improve in the following week, which saw Solich’s charges travel to Buffalo, where they once again saw a late rally come up short in a 31-24 loss. In this case, the visiting side fell behind early, getting torched for Twenty-Four Points in the First Quarter alone, with their Secondary getting shredded for the second consecutive game. Ohio was gutted for an average of 308 Yards through the air in their last two outings on 60.3% Passing, permitting Six Touchdowns in comparison to Zero Takeaways, including scoring plays of 31, 54, 57, 71, 23, and 54 Yards. With the Defense in absolute shambles, it also doesn’t help matters that the Offense has all of a sudden become a Turnover Machine, committing five in the past two contests alone, continuing an alarming trend that began in the triumph over Toledo, in which they managed to overcome three of them. Then again, this has been an issue for this team, which has coughed up the Football twenty-one times, including a dozen Lost Fumbles and Nine Interceptions. This has gone a long way towards limiting what this unit is capable of, which really makes you wonder how prolific they’d be after averaging 38.9 Points (13th Overall) on 433.6 Total Yards of Offense given the circumstances. As has been the case under Solich’s watch, everything the Bobcats do on this side of the ball is predicated on the Rushing Attack, which has trampled the opposition to the tune of 245.8 Yards on 5.7 Yards per Carry. Three different players have rushed for over 600 Yards, with Tailbacks AJ Ouellette (185 CAR, 985 YDS, 7 TD) and Dorian Brown (90 CAR, 605 YDS, 7 TD) carrying the load in the Backfield, while Nathan Rourke (54.2%, 2,031 YDS, 7.4 Y/A, 15 TD, 7 INT) has been a bonafide scoring machine at Quarterback. The Sophomore led the Mid-American Conference in both Rushing Touchdowns (Twenty-One) and Total Touchdowns from Scrimmage (Thirty-Seven), while accounting for 2,908 Total Yards, proving to be equally adept at tormenting opposing Defenses with either his arm or his legs. This kid has had some huge games this season, rushing for at least 100 Yards on five occasions, but has also contributed to his team’s struggles with four of his seven Interceptions being thrown in the last three games alone. The larger problem though is the relative health of the triumvirate of Rourke, Ouellette, and Brown, with each listed anywhere from Doubtful to Probable for today’s encounter with UAB, with the trio dealing with a litany of injuries; Ouellette is expected to miss the game altogether after leaving the loss to Buffalo with an ailing shoulder, while Brown sat out that same affair with a Hip Pointer, with Rourke expected to play despite having been monitored heavily in the past few weeks due to an unspecified injury of his own. Needless to say, if these three were fit to compete they would be primed to exploit the Blazers’ leaky Run Defense, but their collective health puts the chances of doing that at risk.