Adam Kramer on College Football: Once-Dead UAB Now Has No. 1 Scoring DefenseNovember 8, 2018
How did UAB go from not having a football program to having the nation's top scoring defense in only two years? Who can beat Alabama? And what about Week 11's must-watch games? Adam Kramer explores what's happening in college football in his weekly notebook, the Thursday Tailgate.
Two years ago, UAB didn't have a schedule. Technically, it had a football team—a roster made up of mainly new faces who were looking for an opportunity. There was a coaching staff in place, although even members of that staff were unsure exactly how they would bring a football program back from the dead. UAB practiced, just like any other team. Although, unlike any other team, it didn't play a game.
Two years later, UAB football isn't just alive. At 8-1 and atop the Conference USA West standings, the Blazers are one of 14 FBS teams to hit the eight-win threshold.
They, not Clemson nor Michigan nor Alabama, have the nation's top scoring defense at just 12.1 points allowed per game. UAB has outscored its opponents 305 to 109.
"We have a real team, and we're not just talking about the return anymore," Blazers head coach Bill Clark says. "We're actually talking about sustainability. It's like every single thing we hoped would come true is coming true. And granted, it's come through a lot of hard work."
The program was pronounced dead in December 2014. At the time, the university labeled it a business decision. The lowest in a series of lows came when university president Ray Watts met with the UAB players after the ruling.
The emotional response was captured on video and triggered an online movement: #FreeUAB.
Less than a year later, UAB was freed. While it was announced that the program would return, it was uncertain what the team would look like when it suited up in the fall of 2017. All but 20 or so players had left. The momentum Clark had established was gone.
The rebirth took place behind the scenes in 2016 and 2017, long before the team returned to the field. Before he could even contemplate winning a conference championship, Clark had to assemble a roster almost from scratch.
The message to junior college players around the country was simple, according to Clark: "This was not, 'Hey, I hope you play.' This was, 'You have gotta play right now.'"
In 2017, UAB returned after a two-year hiatus and finished 8-5. Given the circumstances, this was a minor miracle. The fast-tracked success brought back something Clark wasn't sure he'd ever experience at UAB: greater expectations.
"You create your own monster, so to speak," Clark says. "But that's a good thing. That's what we want."
Along the way, major off-field milestones were met. In the summer of 2017, UAB opened a $22.5 million football operations center. By 2021, the team will play in a new football stadium.
"UAB has its largest enrollment ever," Clark says, "and $300 million of growth going on all around me. It really feels like it's all coming together at the same time."
The long-term goal is to turn UAB into a viable contender: a perennial Conference USA power that attracts recruits from one of the country's most talent-rich football regions. New facilities will help.
So, for perhaps the first time in years, Clark can focus on the short term. With his program a month away from a potential conference championship game, he's relishing the pressure that comes with the success UAB has achieved in the past 15 months.
"I don't know if you can put into words what winning a championship really means to any program," Clark says. "Especially to one that was not even here two years ago."
Here Are the Teams That Can Beat 'Bama, Ranked
No team is invincible—not even Alabama. That's even after it disassembled LSU in front of Tigers fans. This college football season is not a done deal.
Nick Saban's team is worthy of prohibitive-favorite status the rest of the way. No argument there. But there are a handful of quality contenders that could push the Tide if given the opportunity.
Here are those potential opponents ranked. (Included are projected neutral-site point spreads.)
1. Clemson: The most obvious, appropriate selection, Dabo Swinney's bunch is one of only a handful of teams to have beaten Alabama on the biggest stage. After a sluggish start, a Clemson defense loaded with NFL players has found its rhythm. The running game, which is the unheralded engine of this team, is averaging 6.9 yards per carry. And freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence will continue to grow with more seasoning.
Projected Point Spread: Alabama (-8)
2. Michigan: Playing against this defense looks miserable. Add in the return of defensive lineman Rashan Gary, who missed several games with a shoulder injury, and this group is even more intimidating. The question is whether Michigan's offense can hold up its end. But quarterback Shea Patterson is looking more comfortable with each rep, and Karan Higdon, maybe college football's most underrated player, has become a bowling ball at running back.
Projected Point Spread: Alabama (-12)
3. Georgia: This contest will happen. That much we know. Last year's national championship rematch will occur in the SEC Championship Game on December 1 in Atlanta. Like Clemson, Georgia has weapons everywhere. And if D'Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield run like they did against Kentucky, this team will be a difficult out. If not, quarterback Jake Fromm (or Justin Fields) will have to make enough plays to win. That's far from impossible.
Projected Point Spread: Alabama (-12)
Kansas, Do the Right Thing: Hire Les Miles
On Sunday, Kansas announced it won't retain head coach David Beaty at the end of the season, which means the Jayhawks' coaching search is underway. Athletic director Jeff Long has the tall task of finding a coach to lead a program that has won 18 games since the start of the 2010 season. (Godspeed.)
As ominous as that might sound, Kansas has options. Long, formerly the AD at Arkansas, lured Bret Bielema from Wisconsin while there. Perhaps he could be in play here. As could Les Miles, formerly at LSU, who is looking for a gig.
Sure, Miles turns 65 this week. But he remains steadfast in his desire to return to the sideline, which he made clear when I spoke to him on a handful of occasions in the past year.
"I'm still looking for an athletic director and school that want to introduce Les Miles to their football team as head coach," he told me last month. "And up to this point, I have not found the group that I can really partner with."
When LSU fired him in September 2016, Miles was holding out hope that he would land at a school with national championship aspirations. After two years of missing out on jobs, he's softened his mentality. While a national title probably isn't a realistic goal at Kansas, Miles could get one last crack at coaching and create a different legacy as a rebuilder.
He wouldn't be a long-term solution for Kansas. But right now, this should be more about building a foundation, generating interest and recruiting. Miles would do all of these things.
Plus, his return to coaching would be entirely too much fun.
Five Games to Watch This Weekend
On paper, this isn't the most magnificent lineup. A handful of games that looked promising before the season have lost luster. But often, these are the weekends when carnage lurks. Here's what you should watch in Week 11, summarized in tweet-length form.
(All game times Eastern, and all rankings courtesy of the College Football Playoff selection committee).
No. 2 Clemson at No. 17 Boston College (Saturday, 8 p.m.): What happens when a 245-pound running back who's built like a human battering ram, aka AJ Dillon, runs full speed into a defensive line that's rife with future NFL players? This will be answered when Clemson plays its toughest remaining regular-season game and final road contest.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 16 Mississippi State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.): For normal teams that don't have quarterbacks with video game numbers, this would be a prime letdown scenario. One week removed from LSU, Alabama could be sluggish against a ranked team with a quality defense. Sure, that could happen. It likely won't, but it could.
No. 10 Ohio State at No. 18 Michigan State (Saturday, noon): This feels like a tipping point for the Buckeyes, who enter Week 11 with one of the more perplexing 8-1 records in recent years. The defense has issues, and there are questions about Urban Meyer's future. Still, a spot in the playoff is possible. Strange.
No. 23 Fresno State at Boise State (Friday, 10:15 p.m.): In terms of watchability, this might be the top game on the card. And the best part? It's a rare Friday night gem. Cancel those plans. Order in. Fresno State is making a case as the best non-Power Five team in football, and it will do so on the famous blue turf. Cannot wait.
No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 24 Auburn (Saturday, 7 p.m.): They played twice last year with enormous stakes. This year, the stakes are remarkably one-sided. For Georgia, already SEC Championship Game-bound, this has playoff implications. For Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, following a Houdini win last week against Texas A&M, a victory here would help fan moral.
What Else to Watch This Weekend
First, Bedlam (and the Continued Absurdity of Kyler Murray)
The point spread is more than two touchdowns, per OddsShark, although Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) is always much-watch rivalry television.
For as much as we have salivated over Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa's season and stat line, it doesn't feel like we've appreciated the brilliance of quarterback Kyler Murray, who will soon embark on a baseball career.
His season: 2,689 passing yards, 574 rushing yards, 38 total touchdowns and only five interceptions.
We're running out of opportunities to watch Murray, which means you should enjoy him while you can.
Second, Notre Dame's Final Playoff Push (Part 2)
In a game that would've sounded far more awesome three years ago, Notre Dame's next playoff test (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.) will come at home against Florida State.
Of the three contests remaining for the Irish, this seems like the easiest on paper—a realization that speaks to how coach Willie Taggart's first season has gone.
For the Big 12, Pac-12 and others who hope Brian Kelly's team will stumble and free up a playoff vacancy, this doesn't feel like the moment.
Next week against Syracuse, however? That could be a different story.
Third, Let's Guess Rutgers' Week 11 Point Total
I won't sugarcoat it for you, Rutgers. This week's game against Michigan (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) won't be a great deal of fun. In fact, as more than a five-touchdown underdog at home, you'll likely have the opposite of fun.
Rutgers is ranked No. 130—dead last—in scoring offense. Michigan is ranked No. 5 in scoring defense. The Scarlet Knights have not scored more than 17 points since the first week of the season.
This all leads to the following question: Will Rutgers score more than three points this weekend against Michigan? I believe it will, doing so against backups. But I cannot say I hold that belief with any confidence.
Gambling Locks of the Week
Last Week: 2-3-1
Season to date: 31-25-2
So this what losing feels like, eh? I don't much care for it.
This is only my second losing weekend in the last two months, which is promising. But still, such a performance cannot be tolerated. You deserve more.
Here are this week's picks, using lines provided by OddsShark.
Utah (-3.5) vs. Oregon: Let's just call Utah's last game (a 38-20 loss to Arizona State) a blip and make some coinage on the bounceback, shall we?
Pittsburgh (-3) vs. Virginia Tech: Earlier in the year, Pitt burned us. Here's to the comeback.
Iowa (-10) vs. Northwestern: The Wildcats normally give Iowa fits. However, this game will be an exception to this ritual.
Colorado (+6) vs. Washington State: The Buffaloes have lost four in a row, but the line is so small. Live dog alert.
Massachusetts (+14) vs. BYU: Sure, go ahead and "invest" in this game. I wouldn't suggest watching it, though.
Arkansas (+13.5) vs. LSU: Arkansas has played better since an abysmal start. LSU just was put into a vice against Alabama. This could be surprisingly close.
Houston (-4.5) vs. Temple: Buying low is something I like to do. After a tough loss, we'll gobble up some Houston stock this week.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.