In 2012, South Alabama begins play as a provisional FBS team. At first glance, it appears they have gone about things the right way.
Joey Jones has hired good, local, young assistants with solid recruiting pedigrees, he will be employing an en vogue style on both offense (spread) and defense (3-4), and his program has slowly built confidence and increased its degree of difficulty with each passing year.
USA also happens to be based around a growing, and incredibly football-friendly population base. If you are building a mid-major program from scratch anywhere in the country, you would probably choose somewhere in the South, like Alabama or Georgia. The table seems set for some solid progress in Mobile.
But here's the question: If things are set up so well for South Alabama, then why has UAB struggled so badly? When the Blazers joined the FBS ranks in 1996, they did so in the same football-friendly region, with a well-regarded, somewhat innovative coach (Watson Brown) at the helm. But they have been to just one bowl game in 16 seasons and, after a long, strange stretch of semi-competitive play (they won between four and seven games every year from 1996 to 2005), they have neither won more than five games in a season or finished higher than 84th in the F/+ rankings since 2005. They play in an old stadium (not even "well-seasoned" -- just old) that is, on average, about one-quarter full during UAB games. They have no storied history, no energy, no momentum. So … forget South Alabama's quest for legitimacy; UAB is still on theirs.
Can the new, hot assistant they just hired from Arkansas (Garrick McGee, who will evidently remain UAB's coach despite all the post-Petrino Arkansas rumors … for at least 10 months) succeed where the last new, hot assistant (Neil Callaway, whom UAB hired away from Georgia in 2007) did not?
And is Legion Field even up to code at this point?
In 15 years at the FBS/1A level, UAB has won five games seven times. They've won less than four or more than six just four times. They have been the epitome of consistency ... and they've been to just one bowl game in their FBS existence, a forgettable 2004 trip to the Hawaii Bowl. Head coach Neil Callaway took over for Watson Brown following the 2006 season, and he has re-established UAB's typical level of play; the Blazers have won four, five and four games the last three years. Granted, last year's was probably the most entertaining and unpredictable four-win season of the bunch, but is there any reason to think a break from the trend is going to come about anytime soon? […]
Their record has yet to reflect it, really, but Callaway has had UAB playing like a league-average Conference USA team over the last couple of years. They have struggled with consistency -- a team that almost beats Mississippi State and Tennessee should be able to win at least one of three versus Florida Atlantic, Marshall and Rice -- but the pieces are coming together.
We'll see if they can avoid a complete crater in the run defense with the turnover on the defensive line; if they do, there are plenty of interesting cogs. … Being a single touchdown better in 2010 would have resulted in eight or nine wins; can they improve that much despite the losses in the trenches? And will improvement matter with a schedule that includes visits from Mississippi State, Central Florida and Southern Miss and their most winnable games (Marshall, Memphis, Florida Atlantic) on the road?
Let's break these out, one by one…
* Can they improve that much despite the losses in the trenches? No. The Blazers' defense fell from 86th in Adj. Line Yards to 120th, dead last, and from 85th in Rushing S&P+ to 120th, dead last.
* And will improvement matter with a schedule that includes visits from Mississippi State, Central Florida and Southern Miss, while their most winnable games (Marshall, Memphis, Florida Atlantic) are on the road? No, though not in the way originally imagined. Somehow, they upset both UCF (26-24) and Conference USA champion Southern Miss (34-31) and only lost to Mississippi State by a 21-3 margin. The problem was, they went 1-8 in their other nine games, including a 39-point loss to Tulane, a 59-14 loss to Marshall, and perhaps most egregious, a 38-35 loss to Florida Atlantic in the season finale. Since 2007, Calloway had raised UAB from 118th in F/+ (2007), to 102nd (2008), to 89th (2009) to 84th (2010). But they tumbled back to 111th, suffered through their worst season since 2007, and said goodbye to Calloway. Four years of steady climbing were undone in about two and a half months.
So now, the Garrick McGee era begins. He inherits an offense that was semi-interesting last season but must completely rebuild on the offensive line, and a defense that was of the worst in recent history.
UAB plays in the former home of the USFL's Birmingham Stallions, so perhaps it makes sense that its new offensive coordinator was once on the All-XFL team. Jeff Brohm takes over the offense, and though he and McGee both come from the Bobby Petrino coaching tree, their recent offenses could not have looked more different. Brohm has plenty of passing in his history as an assistant coach, but at Illinois, with fleet-footed Nathan Scheelhaase behind center, he crafted an incredibly run-first identity. He is not a "pass no matter what" coach, but with UAB's returning personnel, he could go that route if he wanted to.
The UAB offense underwent an incredible transformation at the midpoint of last season. Entering 2011, they had an experienced quarterback (Bryan Ellis), a seasoned running back (Pat Shed), a nice receiver trio (Jackie Williams, Nick Adams, Patrick Hearn) and an incredibly experienced offensive line. But none of those players performed very well at all. Ellis completed just 53 percent of his passes, Shed averaged fewer than four yards per carry, and for the season as a whole, none of the three receivers averaged better than 5.7 adjusted yards per target. UAB averaged a paltry 21.9 Adj. Points per game through the first half of the season, so Callaway and his staff basically said "Eff it" and turned the offense over to the young guys.
And it worked. Jonathan Perry took over at quarterback, and after completing 49 percent of his passes at 5.4 yards per pass through six games (he had started two and seen small time in other), he completed 62 percent at 7.5 per pass in the final six games. Bit players in the first half of the season, Greg Franklin (69 carries, 329 yards in the last seven games) and Darrin Reaves (69 carries, 343 yards in the last six) became a semi-dynamic running back combination. Understudies at first, freshmen receivers Jamarcus Nelson (two catches for 16 yards in the first five, 15 for 342 and four touchdowns in the last seven) and Jay Davis (five for 45 in the first six, 13 for 129 in the last six) played integral roles down the stretch. For that matter, so did then-sophomore tight end Nolen Smith (three for 51 in the first six, 16 for 222 in the last six).
Behind what really was a quality line (38th in Adj. Line Yards, 35th in Adj. Sack Rate), this suddenly deep offense exploded. Their Adj. PPG average rose almost nine full points to 30.7, and after scoring no more than 23 points in the first six games of the year, they scored 26 points against Central Florida, 41 against Memphis, 34 against Southern Miss and 35 against Florida Atlantic. And almost every skill position player responsible for this surge returns: Perry (a run-pass threat), Franklin and Reaves at running back (they are joined by redshirt freshman Bashr Coles, who had a nice spring), and one of Conference USA's deepest receiving corps (Williams, Hearn, Nelson, Davis, Smith).
It is easy to see the offense-minded McGee and Brohm doing great things with this unit of skill position players. One problem: five of six linemen with starting experience are gone, including all-conference tackle Matt McCants. The five departed players had combined for 160 career starts. The returning players have combined for 13, all from senior tackle Chris Hubbard. Hubbard looked good this spring, as did converted tackle Cody Payne, but … a line has five players, not two. This could be a significant issue in 2012.
So UAB had a downright strong offense over the last half of the season. How did they still finish only 3-9? How did Callaway still get dumped? Because the defense was absolutely, positively awful. The Blazers allowed 43.8 points per game over their final five contests, including an egregious 35 to Memphis and 38 to Florida Atlantic. The Blazers had the worst line in the FBS ranks, the worst run defense, the worst red zone defense, the second-worst standard downs defense and (a relative strength, ahem), the sixth-worst passing downs defense and seventh-worst pass defense. They ranked 120th in the first quarter, 105th in the second, 119th in the third and 117th in the fourth. The worst part? They were actually relatively experienced, at least in the back seven.
McGee tasked former Arkansas linebackers coach Reggie Johnson with the rebuilding of this putrid unit. Linebackers were a strength for the Hogs in recent years, and they might be at UAB, too, but there is a long road back to respectability here.
The defensive line may have been the worst in the country, but at least it was young. Of the six returning linemen who registered at least 5.0 tackles last season, four were freshmen (three were three-star freshmen) and two were sophomores. The components don't look completely awful, even if last year's results were. Sophomore end Diaheem Watkins was the second leading tackler on the line last year and had himself a lovely spring. He will combine with the aforementioned three-star guys, Chris Walton and Trey Grissett, to attempt some sort of pass rush. The three have bulked up in a hurry. On last year's depth chart, they averaged 227 pounds; now: 259 pounds. Meanwhile, last year's "bigger end," 250-pound Connor Boyett, is now a 267-pound "small tackle." Three-star sophomore tackle Mickey Jackson, meanwhile, has gone from "big tackle" (6'1, 305) to enormous (320). This is a lot of weight in a relatively small amount of time; we'll see if it's good weight or bad. Still, it does appear that UAB will have a regulation-sized line this year; they most certainly did not last fall.
The secondary was as experienced as the defensive line was green in 2011. A large batch of seniors did produce the "best" (in quotes for a reason) aspect of the UAB defense -- defending the pass. Safety Jamie Bender was particularly good, not only logging 13 percent of all of the Blazers' tackles (never a good sign for the defense as a whole), but also making 7.5 tackles for loss, intercepting two passes, breaking up six others, and forcing four fumbles. He is gone, as are two other safeties in the two-deep. Meanwhile, Cornelius Richards is the only of the top four corners returning. Johnson and defensive backs coaches Anthony Blevins (CBs) and Brandon Sharp (safeties) hope to craft an interesting unit out of Richards, safety Calvin Jones, and a lot of spare parts and freshmen. The good news is, at worst, the dropoff will be minimal, simply because you can only go so far down.
If there is a single star on the defense this year, and it isn't Watkins, it will probably be senior Marvin Burdette, a well-rounded attacker who should get help from fellow seniors Greg Irvin and D.A. Autry in the linebacking corps.
It is difficult to get a read on what to expect from UAB, or where the success-or-not line should be drawn. The Blazers host Memphis, Troy and SE Louisiana, so they should be able to replicate last year's three wins. Plus, home games versus East Carolina and Marshall are not exactly sure losses. If, 12 months from now, the Blazers are reflecting on a fall that saw them win four games and keep their coach, they should probably be happy.
In an offense that lost quarterback Case Keenum and offensive-minded coaches like Kevin Sumlin and Larry Fedora, UAB should be able to contribute to the "ridiculous shootouts" personality Conference USA has developed through the years. Against teams with lesser defensive lines, anyway, the Blazers should be able to string together some serious points and yards. (Still, let's not pretend that the inexperience on the line is anything less than terrifying.) But one still has to figure they will be held back by the defense. An improved front seven should help, but the secondary is too green, and the defense was just too bad last year to expect miracles.
Still, last year's late offensive surge, combined with the hire of an up-and-coming offensive coach as head man, have created at least a little bit of buzz. Three thousand fans showed up at the spring game (with stands set up for just 1,500, no less), which is a good sign. There are quite a few intriguing freshmen and sophomores on this team, and, linebackers aside, most of the team's better players will still have eligibility remaining in 2013. The team will be more interesting this fall than it has been in a while. Now it just needs to survive the storm of Arkansas ridiculousness and retain its head coach ten months from now.