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UAB football isn’t just back. It’s good. Wow.

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There are challenges on the horizon for Bill Clark’s zombie program, but 2018 should be another fun season.

NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When college football and state politics interact, painfully stupid things happen. This was the most lunkheaded, ham-fisted, dull-witted, plain-old-mean development this sport had seen in a while.

This asinine nitwittedness, however, might have accidentally created a brighter future. There was no state support for the on-campus facilities UAB had been attempting for years to arrange. Now the ball is rolling.

Results are only part of the puzzle in 2017. The Blazers exist again. That is reason alone to celebrate.

Just seeing UAB playing at an FBS level last year was enough. The fact that the Blazers’ program had been shut down for pretty pathetic reasons, then showed back up two years later — seemingly with both energy and a higher level of support — was great. That head coach Bill Clark, who could have left and found a solid new career path, was still there? Give that man a decade’s worth of mulligans.

In 2017, UAB took the field with a roster that had been torn to the ground and rebuilt in a couple of recruiting cycles. The results were wholly secondary — if they stunk, it was understandable.

And then UAB went 8-5. The Blazers ranked 76th in S&P+, better than five Conference USA teams that did, in fact, exist in 2015-16. They went 6-0 at home. They went 6-2 in Conference USA. They won close games and blowouts. They fielded a top-50 defense.

They fielded a top-50 defense! Think about that! They ranked in the top 25 in defensive success rate and in the top 15 against the pass. And they did this all with a roster that was, by design, full of underclassmen.

The Blazers return their starting quarterback, top three rushers, every receiver, four offensive line starters, their top four defensive linemen, and four of their top six defensive backs. They must replace a pair of thrilling linebackers and their best cornerback, but if that’s all you have to replace, you’ll manage.

The offense might need to carry a bit more weight, if the defense is indeed not creating quite as much disruption. The key will be big plays — the Blazers didn’t create nearly enough of them. Whether this increase comes from further experience (the receiving corps has 10-plus seniors), young talent, scheme changes, or something else, is yet to be determined.

They also probably need to figure out a better final act. This was an amazing story no matter what, but after 10 games of overachieving, UAB stumbled.

2017 UAB vs. Vegas
  • First 10 games (7-3): Avg. yards per play: UAB 5.6, Opp 5.3 (+0.3) | Avg. percentile performance: 63% (~top 50) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+: +11.7 PPG
  • Last 3 games (1-2): Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.8, UAB 4.9 (-0.9) | Avg. percentile performance: 40% (~top 80) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+: -22.9 PPG

Once goals had been achieved, UAB lost its edge. But that’s fine. These are real-program problems, and UAB is a real program again. An incredible 10-game run was enough.

Offense

2017 UAB offensive radar

A.J. Erdely was pretty good at avoiding crippling mistakes in 2017. The quarterback from Cumming, Ga., via MTSU, completed 61 percent of his passes, threw just four interceptions, and fumbled just six times, a reasonably low number for a quarterback. “Don’t screw yourself” was the m.o. of UAB’s offense, and Erdely was a good choice to run it. And he was basically the same in wins and losses.

  • Erdely in 8 wins: 61% completion rate, 10.8 yards per completion, 10 TD, 2 INT, 133.1 passer rating
  • Erdely in 5 losses: 59% completion rate, 12.1 yards per completion, 6 TD, 2 INT, 130.3 passer rating
NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Florida
A.J. Erdely
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was the success of everyone else that either did or didn’t push UAB over the top. Spencer Brown, for instance. The 235-pound freshman averaged 5.6 yards per carry in UAB’s wins and 3.2 in the last four losses. If UAB was able to grind out some yards and keep its defense off of the field, good things happened.

Brown is now a sophomore and could be even more capable of grinding opponents into dust in a given game. But the upside of this offense is still suspect. UAB ranked 55th in success rate last year but only 115 in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of one’s successful plays). They couldn’t create any easy points with big plays, and when the defense had a less than impressive day (39.8 points per game allowed in five losses, 16.8 in wins), UAB wasn’t winning a track meet.

That creates some tension between the returnees and newcomers. Despite vastly different statures, Brown and 5’7, 180-pound backup James Noble III are basically the same back from a decent-efficiency, no-explosiveness standpoint, and there aren’t any newbies entering the mix there. But at receiver, JUCO transfers Austin Watkins and Kendall Parham and three-star redshirt freshman Kevin Davis could quickly find a role if they provide some pop.

The newbies finding space in the rotation would be excellent news for 2019, at least — 10 of the top 11 returning receivers are seniors. So is Erdely. Yikes.

The only missing starter on the offense is a pretty important one: second-team all-conference guard Chris Schleuger. He might have been UAB’s best offensive player last year. But three full-time starters (including honorable-mention all-conference tackle James Davis) and two part-timers all return, and Clark chose to add two JUCOs to the mix here, too.

Because of enormous recent classes, he only had 14 scholarships to give out in 2018, and in an attempt to prepare for losing a gigantic senior class following 2018, four of the 14 scholarships went to JUCO transfers on offense. There will be a massive reset a year from now, so it might take a while to fully uncover Bryant Vincent’s vision here. Vincent was in charge of this offense back in 2014, when the Blazers spiked from 84th to 67th in Off. S&P+. He returns in 2018, but if they don’t approach the top 70 this year, it might take a little while.

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Alabama-Birmingham
Spencer Brown
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 UAB defensive radar

As important as it was for UAB to retain Clark during its hiatus, it was almost as important for Clark to retain David Reeves. The Blazers’ defense improved from 121st to 90th in Def. S&P+ in 2014 as their sack totals doubled, with Reeves as line coach, and he came on as coordinator in 2016, more than a year before the team would start playing again.

The improvement continued despite the hiatus. UAB ranked 50th in Def. S&P+, combining an aggressive secondary with a front that was tough to move. The Blazers didn’t boast much of a pass rush (109th in Adj. Sack Rate), but they featured a rare commodity: active linemen in a 3-4 set. Tackles Garrett Marino and Anthony Rush combined for 17 tackles for loss (only one of which was a sack); Rush took part in 18 run stuffs, Marino 15.

NCAA Football: Alabama A&M at Alabama-Birmingham
Garrett Marino (44)
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

This level of activity freed up the linebacking corps to swarm to the ball — Tevin Crews and Shaq Jones combined for 25 TFLs and six sacks of their own, and both took part in at least 16 run stuffs.

For UAB’s sake, here’s to hoping that the linebackers’ production was partially driven by the dominance of Marino and Rush up front. They’re back in 2018, but Crews and Jones are not.

The Blazers must replace four of their top six havoc guys. Crews and Jones combined to make 21 percent of UAB’s havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, forced fumbles), and departed defensive backs Darious Williams and Garrison Mitchell (combined: 7.5 TFLs, 27 PDs) made 22 percent. Those are almost the only players gone from last year’s two-deep, but they were very productive.

There’s hope, though. Linebackers Thomas Johnston and Chris Woolbright combined for 5.5 TFLs and three sacks in backup roles, and corners D.A. Williams and Brontae Harris combined for seven PDs and a pair of TFLs. Add in stalwarts like linebacker Fitzgerald Mofor and a foursome of solid safeties (seniors Broderick Thomas, Mar’Sean Diggs, and Duke Culver, and junior Will Dawkins), and there might still be some solid play-making in the back.

You can mask inexperience and uncover new play-makers when you’ve got an excellent defensive front, and UAB’s could be just that. Marino and Rush lead the way, but end Stacy Keely is a decent pass rusher, at least compared to most on this defense, and two other seniors could populate the second string.

Again, the number of seniors could be an issue moving forward. Of all the guys I just mentioned, only Marino, Mofor, Johnston, Dawkins, and Harris are scheduled to return in 2019. Clark spent five scholarships on freshman defensive backs in the 2018 class, but he might have to go the JUCO route to ensure depth up front in the next class.

NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Florida
Broderick Thomas
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

UAB’s special teams was mostly forgettable in 2017, and that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Andre Wilson is a decent punt returner, and Nick Vogel was a nice place-kicking weapon — he made all eight of his under-40-yard field goals and five of nine longer kicks.

One weakness does need shoring up: Joel Dixon averaged 41.3 yards per punt, but opponents averaged 10.3 yards per return, dropping the Blazers to 114th in punt efficiency and 67th in Special Teams S&P+ despite the place-kicking.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Savannah State NR 36.9 98%
8-Sep at Coastal Carolina 118 4.6 61%
15-Sep Tulane 98 4.1 59%
29-Sep Charlotte 126 12.6 77%
6-Oct at Louisiana Tech 70 -7.1 34%
13-Oct at Rice 128 8.7 69%
20-Oct North Texas 86 1.1 53%
27-Oct at UTEP 130 12.8 77%
3-Nov UTSA 104 5.8 63%
10-Nov Southern Miss 94 3.5 58%
17-Nov at Texas A&M 24 -18.5 14%
24-Nov at Middle Tennessee 83 -4.6 40%
Projected S&P+ Rk 91
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 97 / 79
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -5.7 (96)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 117 / 121
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 3.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (96%, 53%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.5 (0.5)

There’s no reason to assume a drop-off from UAB in 2018 unless some sort of first-year-buzz phenomenon drove the Blazers to overachieve. The defense does lose some prime play-makers, but the depth is solid, and an offense that returns 10 starters and most backups should be able to compensate if the defense loses a step.

S&P+ isn’t built to adequately project a team that died and was reborn, and predictably, it’s playing things conservatively (just as it did last year, when the Blazers were projected 130th): UAB lines up as the No. 91 team in the preseason projections.

The Blazers are still in good shape to bowl once more. They play only two teams projected higher than 83rd and five projected 118th or lower. So even with a conservative projection, they’re favored in nine games and projected to win around seven. Overachieve those projections, and something closer to nine wins is possible.

College football has to produce heart-warming material to offset the crap that we have to put up with when talking about it year-round. It usually fulfills that obligation, and UAB’s zombie bowl run was one of my favorite stories in 2017. Clark deserves all the praise he has received, and while he faces plenty of challenges moving forward, 2018 should further this happy rise.

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