Wednesday, September 13
Dancing with myself.
With Georgia's second matchup against UAB in four seasons right around the corner, it would appear that the Dawgs and the Blazers are developing quite a little rivalry here. We could call it "The Battle of I-20," except it'd actually be The Battle of I-20, Then Get Off At Exit 72 (Highway 138), Which Will Eventually Merge Into U.S. 78, Which BOOM! Takes You Right Into Athens, Or You Could Always Get On I-285 North And . . . well, you can kind of see how cumbersome that would be. At any rate, with UAB having taken Georgia to the very edge in their last meeting (a 16-13 Bulldog win), this seems like a game the Bulldogs can ill afford to take lightly, and a game that's a perfect candidate for a team-vs.-team roundtable like the one I did with Techie blogger Nathan last November.
Only problem is, there are no dedicated UAB sportsbloggers that I know of, and I doubt any of the corndogs at the Birmingham News would waste their precious time with little ol' me, so . . . what to do? I know: How about a roundtable with . . . myself?
Yup, I've been a Birmingham resident for almost four years now, and UAB is the one who sees fit -- for the time being, at least -- to give me a paycheck. (Not for any of the nonsense on this blog, though. This crap's on the house!) I dare say I've been to more UAB games than the rest of the Blogpoll members combined, so like Dick Cheney, I've taken a good long look at the list of candidates and declared that the best-qualified one is me -- and thus begins Hey Jenny Slater's first-ever Roundtable With Myself. I won't be doing too much of this in the future, though, I hear it can make you go blind.
LSU cartoonist Tom Sylvest Jr.'s reaction to the 2000 UAB-LSU shocker.
The big LSU road upset in 2000, the scarily close games against Georgia in '03, Tennessee in '05, and Oklahoma a few weeks ago -- how is it that UAB manages to give so many big guys a run for their money? Is it just a matter of the big-name teams not taking them seriously, or is UAB really better than we think?
Um . . . "yes"? I guess it's probably easy for teams like Oklahoma or Georgia to not give UAB the attention they deserve, but it's not all lack of focus on their part -- UAB really is a lot better than people realize. Since becoming a full-fledged Conference USA member in 1999, UAB has amassed a record of 29-23 in C-USA -- better than Memphis, South Florida, or Houston, all of whom went to bowls last year -- and 41-41 overall. May not seem like much on paper, but it becomes a lot more impressive when you consider that UAB has only had a football team since 1991 and has only been a member of Division I-A for a little over 10 years. Perhaps that's part of the reason why some people I talk to, even in the Southeast, don't even realize UAB has a football team at all. And many of the ones that do think we're some kind of scrub squad on the level of New Mexico State or UL-Lafayette. No offense to the Sun Belt, but UAB is a considerably stronger program than that. We may not be Ohio State or Texas, but our track record is too strong to be dismissed as, "Ehh, directional school."
Still, you do end up at kind of a disadvantage when your medical center is more famous than your football team. But even in spite of that, UAB has done a remarkably good job of pulling in good talent. Darrell Hackney, for instance, was getting attention from some big-name schools before he got hurt during his senior year of high school; UAB stuck with him, and he ended up being one of the most exciting quarterbacks the conference had ever seen. (You can't tell me that, say, Georgia Tech or South Carolina wouldn't have liked to avail themselves of his services during 2003-05.) Roddy White shattered C-USA receiving records and got drafted in the first round by the Falcons. Now we've got Sam Hunt, a QB who transferred from MTSU and appears to have our passing game in much better shape than we would've thought a year ago. A lot of these guys can go toe-to-toe with the BCS big boys in terms of ability, and everything you've heard about their motivation is true -- when I talked to Roddy White at the Falcons' training camp last summer, he said that he did feel like he had something to prove to the teammates who'd come from the Oklahomas and Miamis of the world.
Now, while UAB may have starting talent that can compete with the big football factories, they aren't able to recruit nearly the kind of depth that those schools are, which I think is the main reason why you see them nearly beating so many big schools but not quite getting over the hump. Still, every once in a while they knock off a player, and their BCS-conference opponents have to take great care to ensure that it isn't them.
If their talent is so impressive, how come they've only gone to one bowl and went 5-6 last year?
The bowl question is really a matter of UAB not managing to have a winning record at the right time. They had winning records in both 2000 (the year they knocked off LSU) and 2001, but Conference USA didn't have enough tie-ins and they stayed home. Even in 2004, when they went 7-4 and knocked off two bowl-bound C-USA teams on the way to their Hawaii Bowl bid, there was some worry that UAB still might not get an invite because they'd never been to a bowl before and people weren't sure whether the fan base would travel. That's probably going to be an Achilles heel for the Blazers for a while, but fortunately C-USA has added enough bowl tie-ins (including a deal with a new bowl right here in Birmingham) that there should be bids available if the Blazers can win at least six games.
Future first-rounder Roddy White hauls in a 51-yard TD pass against Hawaii in the '04 Hawaii Bowl.
As for last year's 5-6 record . . . well, that's a thornier issue, and I think most people would agree that they should've done better. I think a lot of it came down to the expectations game; in '04, UAB wasn't really on anyone's radar, but with that first bowl under their belts and Darrell Hackney coming back for his senior season, expectations were a lot higher for 2005. And honestly, everything was going pretty well in the beginning -- they went toe-to-toe with Tennessee in Knoxville, they dominated their in-state rival Troy, they beat Jacksonville State and pounded Rice -- and were favored to beat SMU pretty handily at home but lost the game on what was literally a last-second TD pass. After that, things kind of fell apart. Our veteran players, particularly on the O-line, started committing silly penalties and making silly mistakes veterans shouldn't make, and Watson Brown fully copped to over-coaching in some areas. SMU was the start of a very dispiriting three-game skid, and while we managed to upset Memphis and UTEP down the stretch, all bowl hopes were snuffed with an embarrassing loss to a lousy ECU team in the very last game.
With Hackney gone, few people figured UAB would do anything in '06, and I think we even got picked to finish fifth out of six in C-USA's Eastern Division in one poll. But with expectations minimal, you're seeing the team surprise people again, and what once looked like a major rebuilding year now holds a lot of promise. I'd say six wins is a completely reasonable goal, though the Blazers end the season with a three-game rope-a-dope of UTEP, Southern Miss, and UCF, all '05 bowl teams, the last two on the road. They may need to have six or even seven wins by that point if they want to be confident about a bowl.
So do you think UAB can play the Dawgs as close this year as they did in '03? What does Georgia need to be on the lookout for?
UAB at Georgia, 2003. Sorry the picture is small -- there weren't many on the Web, which from Georgia's perspective, at least, is probably not an accident.
Repeating 2003's performance is going to be tough because Mark Richt has already been through this once and isn't going to let his team come out flatfooted again. There may be a bit of a hangover from a very gutty road win over South Carolina last Saturday, but Georgia also gets back three very important starters -- O-linemen Dan Inman and Ian Smith and cornerback/punt returner Thomas Flowers -- who had been suspended for the first two games and will be itching to prove themselves. Georgia's defense will have to contend with a very mobile QB in Sam Hunt and a big, strong O-line that only gave up one sack to Oklahoma, but the Dawgs' front seven has straight-up murdered people so far this season, and I don't think even the Sooners brought as much pressure on Hunt as Georgia is likely to.
One of the main things I'd be worried about if I were Georgia, though, is UAB's pass defense. They've improved considerably over the past couple years, and while they've given up 504 yards in their first two games, opposing QBs are only so-so against them completion-wise (34-of-62) and have thrown three interceptions. An impressive number of yards, a mediocre completion percentage, a bunch of INTs . . . does that remind you of, oh, Matt Stafford in the South Carolina game? Stafford is an awesome talent, but he's a freshman, and against the Gamecocks we saw that he's prone to taking big gambles and throwing picks as a result. UAB will take advantage of those mistakes if he makes them, and recall that it was mainly four turnovers by Oklahoma, including two picks by Paul Thompson, that kept that game close. Georgia's offense needs to take care to avoid that happening again.
So if Georgia signed your diploma but UAB signs your paychecks, who are you going to be rooting for?
Uh . . . I know this sounds like a cop-out, but both of them. Obviously I'd like Stafford to have a big game, but I'd like Sam Hunt to perform well too, given that he's got such big shoes to fill. Georgia has more at stake in this game, obviously, but anything that earns UAB more respect is good too, and I'd like to see them put in a good performance. Since it seems like Georgia hardly ever beats the spread in these early-season out-of-conference games anyway, is it OK if I root for the Bulldogs to win, but for the Blazers to cover? Either way, I'll be wearing my red #4 Georgia jersey and a UAB hat, and I'm going to try to have both a UGA and a UAB flag flying from my car, too. If you see me on the road Saturday, be sure to honk.
(Kyle King has more on UAB here.)