Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 5 UAB.
Day after day, hour after hour, I’ve been writing about the most amazing, most predictable, boring-ass, overloaded five-star rosters. You, you, did this. But, dear voter, you saved the good stuff for the top five, and I want you to know I appreciate it, even if you made me review the AP poll, essentially. Assholes.
And with that, I give you, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, the zombie program. UAB sprouted into formation in 1996; after three years as an independent, the Blazers hooked up with Conference USA, where they spent the next 16 years doing two beautiful things—being a steady six-win team and upsetting Nick Saban’s squad.
Let’s not forget the time Saban chickened out and declined to support a yearly matchup between Alabama and UAB. If you’re not Auburn or the Crimson Tide, in this state, well, it’s a tough draw. So, the most anyone could ever ask of UAB was that they regularly find a way to embarrass Saban, and in that they succeeded. Aside from that, they were very forgettable, which is also fine! They went to exactly one bowl game and they lost it, but they did score a sweet trip to Hawaii.
In 2014, not suspiciously at all, the University of Alabama (cough cough) Board of Trustees snapped their fingers and appropriated tax dollars to other causes. As CBS Sports had it, the Crimson Tide-favoring board had long been looking to cut the Blazers loose. The football program and the athletic department had been hemorrhaging money basically since it came into being, with 64 percent of its athletic revenue in 2013 coming from subsidies and student fees. The final push for defunding came from Bear Bryant’s son, Paul Bryant Jr.—apparently, the founder of UAB athletics, Gene Bartow, accused Bryant of cheating in 1991.
UAB was gone in November; most cruelly, the Blazers, despite finishing with six wins, were denied an opportunity to play in a shitty bowl game (they might be shitty bowl games, but it’s better than sloppy non-conference basketball, you yell as I nod furiously.) Head coach Bill Clark, who had looked so promising in his first season, was out of a job and the Blazers were out of a team.
The fallout was spectacularly messy, the lowlight coming when the football players finally had a face-to-face opportunity to pour their hearts out to university president Ray Watts, questioning the reasoning and timing behind the program’s death, and also fitting in a slight toward the “shitty” conditions of their former home, Legion Field. One player went so far as to wear his helmet to graduation. For a moment, it looked as though the Blazers may be kicked out of Conference USA, seeing as fielding a football team is a stipulation of membership.
And then, seven months later, UAB, once turned to dust, was back. It was weird and sudden, but cool. The Blazers had to scramble to put together a team, and while there were plenty of questions, the fact that Clark hung around to handle the rebuild went a long way toward ensuring the program wouldn’t slip too far in talent. As most of UAB’s players transferred or graduated—just four players from the 2014 squad remain on the roster—Clark spent the next two seasons cobbling together a roster of young, overlooked players and grad students, with the 2017 return looming over the process.
The Blazers won eight games in 2017, the program’s record high, and unless everyone in Conference USA steps their game up all at once, UAB is in great position to repeat that kind of success this season. The Blazers have 10 starters back on offense, including quarterback A.J. Erdely.
As the inaugural starter for UAB 2.0, Erdely completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 16 scores to just four picks. Those numbers basically tell you what you need to know, though you can watch the film to confirm: Erderly is great at not messing up, and this season, he should be even better at it. He’s not an explosive type by any measure, and the Blazers have proven that, against a fairly soft schedule, they can make it work. That means the UAB offense will have to be content making it happen on the ground; luckily, they have just the guy.
Sophomore running back Spencer Brown is the focal point of the offense, having rushed for 1,329 yards and 10 scores as a rookie. He’ll be running behind a veteran offensive line, so expect him to be one of the premier backs in the conference, and maybe quietly, the nation.
The other side of the ball wasn’t just admirable for its grit and fight in 2017; the defense was actually pretty good!
This started with the secondary. Safety Broderick Thomas was the star of the entire defense, finishing with 95 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, and two picks. Thomas is a delight to watch. He tends to find himself where the ball’s at, be it in the air or on the ground; wherever it makes it way, Thomas zips there, making full-speed, open-field tackles like he’s playing for Saban. Behind Thomas last year, the UAB secondary allowed just 189.7 yards per game, which ranked 22nd in the nation.
The rushing defense wasn’t perfect, but it was still No. 79 out of a possible 129—not bad for a recently dead team! The Blazers did well enough to hold teams to 175.9 yards but should aim to improve that with experience on the line, which will be anchored by Anthony Rush and Garrett Marino. As a sophomore, Marino started six games and registered 8.0 tackles for loss; he’ll be expected to take the next step this year and be a weekly terror. Behind them, the middle of the defense will be held down by linebacker Fitzgerald Mofor, back after making 71 stops a year ago. He’ll be joined by Thomas Johnston and Chris Woolbright.
So, yes, the grand experiment has been going well. The Blazers have a new stadium on the way and led Conference USA in attendance in their first season back. I mean, sure, there was that little thing in June where Conference USA television revenues dipped and forced UAB to cut 12 staff members from its athletic department, including a father of two young kids who left his stable job just the month before—it didn’t help that UAB called him at 4:29 p.m. when HR closed at 4:30 p.m.—but other than that, totally smooth sailing.
Spencer Brown might be a sign that UAB is supposed to be back. After all, UAB finding a fantastic freshman running back in its very first season seems a little on the nose.
Having earned the 2017 Conference USA Freshman of the Year award, he’ll no longer have the element of surprise, or the element of teams thinking, “Yeah, but the kid hasn’t played us.” Brown wasn’t a breakout star every week, but in the six games he topped 100 yards, he made the ride fun to watch. His 33-attempt, 209-yard outing against Southern Mississippi was one highlight; another came the following week, when he racked up three scores and 140 yards on Rice. This guy is going to be the face of UAB for the foreseeable future, and that’s great news for the Blazers.
You kidding? UAB, can absolutely make the playoff this season with these recruits and this schedule!
Okay, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but UAB can definitely make a more serious push for the Conference USA crown this season. Last year, the Blazers finished 6-2 in the conference, just one game out of first in the West Division, behind winner North Texas and runner-up Southern Mississippi; they all lost out to fucking Lane Kiffin and FAU. So, there’s your angle: Root for UAB because not only will you be pissing off Nick Saban, you’ll be shitting on Kiffin, which in turn might even make Saban smile. Everybody wins!
He’s not an assistant, but he’s not wrong.
Aug. 30: Savannah State
Sept. 8: @ Coastal Carolina
Sept. 15: Tulane
Sept. 29: UNC Charlotte
Oct. 6: @ Louisiana Tech
Oct. 13: @ Rice
Oct. 20: North Texas
Oct. 27: @ UTEP
Nov. 3: UTSA
Nov. 10: Southern Mississippi
Nov. 17: @ Texas A&M
Nov. 24: Middle Tennessee State