*This is State's second game of the season against a team from Conference USA. The Bulldogs opened the year with a 28-7 win over Tulane. UAB visits the Green Wave on October 23. State is the only SEC team on UAB's schedule this year, and their last non-conference game of '04 as well.
Ten seasons when ago Watson Brown decided it was time to be a head coach again, he took on a formidable challenge: to turn a ‘basketball school' into a full-fledged Division I football program. And, to do it right in the heart of SEC country, with no campus stadium and uncertain finances. It's taken a decade and the fiscal picture remains shaky, but coach/AD Brown is seeing a payoff now. A 50-55 UAB record is actually quite respectable considering the ground-up job Brown has done, and it would be a lot closer to break-even if not for a bad break last fall when quarterback Darrell Hackney went down in mid-season. That was the difference in the eventual 5-7 finish and the first winning season since a 6-5 mark in 2001. A year later the veteran Blazers, with 21 of 24 starters back, are going to get that winning mark. They should also earn the school's first-ever bowl bid, and have an excellent shot at their first Conference USA crown. But first, UAB wants to claim their first SEC victory since beating LSU in 2000.
A thumb injury in the seventh game cut short Hackney's sophomore season, after the Atlanta native had tossed for 1,659 yards and nine touchdowns. Healthy now, he is an O'Brien Award nominee and on track for a 2,000-yard season. He's been good on 51.5% of his throws and has already matched the '03 touchdown total. Hackney is not just mobile but is a load to bring down on the roll. And in the inventive Brown's playbook the quarterback has all sorts of receivers to choose from depending on how multiple the set is each particular play. The favorite target is senior split end Roddy White, coming off a 844-yard junior season with nine scores. White has 20 catches through four games, with five of the club's nine aerial touchdowns, and a 19.0-yard average each time he grabs the ball. And that's not even the best; Bradley Chavez gets almost 25 yards per catch. Flanker Reggie Lindsey (6 receptions, 2 TDs) rounds out a trio of top catchers. But the running game can't be ignored at all, especially with soph tailback Dan Burks healthy again. He played in just three games last year with a shoulder injury. Now he's run for 336 yards and a 5.9 average in four '04 games. Corey White is the more physical runner and has three TDs on a 6.5-yard average. The question mark going into the year was blocking, with a still-young line. The answers have been positive despite a mostly-underclassman front. It's a big group, too, averaging 313 pounds for the starting five and 312 for the second unit! Which goes to show there is plenty of talent and muscle out there to be signed that doesn't make the lists of SEC recruiting magazines. It's also an offense with a bright future featuring only three seniors as starters.
They don't get the same attention given to the flashy side of the ball, but the veteran squad on this roster is the defense with six starting seniors. The linebacking unit is especially experienced with three senior starters, and these guys can move, hit, and tackle all over the field. Weakside LB Zac Woodfin is the one to watch, a Lombardi preseason nominee after setting a program record with 149 total stops last season. That was after a 120-tackle soph season. He has 32 stops this year and can either sack the passer or pick off the throw. The ‘backers get plenty of support, too, from a pair of junior strong safeties. The secondary as a whole seems hard to figure, as UAB is giving up 278 yards of passing per game and 61% completions. Yet the Blazers have also picked off nine passes in four games and made foes pay for what looks like the easy way to go. At the same time teams are finding this defense tough to run against, with a net 3.7 yards per rush allowed. Senior NT Shamar Abrams is the veteran of this group, and a 320-pound bulwark in the middle of the line. DE Larry McSwain is thriving as a sophomore, leading the team in tackles for loss and sacks (four). Creating turnovers has become a squad specialty with four fumbles recovered, and nine interceptions shared by eight different Blazers. Also, this team is the least-penalized in CUSA and ranked #12 nationally.
Placekicker Nick Hayes is on the Groza Award watch list for a third year, and could win it this time. He's 47-of-63 on career field goals and 86-of-87 on PATs. Lindsey is leading CUSA in both punt and kickoff return averages at 12.3 and 27.2 yards respectively, and ranks among the nation's best. Parker Mullins is a steady 40-yard punter, with a net of nearly 35 yards for the coverage.
The schools have never met in football. For what it's worth, State is 3-4 against UAB in basketball (though with a two-game win streak), and 25-9 in baseball.
*Besides Brown's two years as a Bulldog assistant coach, there is another inter-staff connection. Croom and UAB linebackers coach Woodrow Lowe were teammates, and both All-American players, at Alabama. UAB assistant head coach Rick Christophel was on the MSU staff from 1991-94. And Blazer strength coach Marcus Bush played for Rockey Felker at State. Line coach Pat Donohoe was a G.A. for Jackie Sherrill in 1993-94.
*MSU wide receiver Will Prosser and UAB punter Parker Mullins were teammates at Starkville Academy. Receiver Tee Milons played with UAB lineman Rodney Outlaw at Starkville High. Other Mississippians on the roster are CB Bobby Keys (Raleigh), OL Tommie Keyes (Louin). They played at Jones County CC with MSU linebacker Chris Swain.
Did You Know?
*This is Watson Brown's fifth head-coaching job, after stints at Austin Peay (1979-80), Cincinnati (1983), Rice (1984-85), his alma mater Vanderbilt (1986-90). He was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma after leaving State and before coming to UAB as coach/athletic director.
How They Compare:
Hackney is the real deal, compared favorably with LSU's JaMarcus Russell and able to throw, move, and take a hit. State's passers are taking wayyyy too many hits for their health this year.
Running Backs: State
But it's hard to make a claim based on the stats. Burks is getting 84 yards a game and White gets the points. If Norwood can stay healthy and get 15-20 totes, he'll do both.
Offensive Line: UAB
If both groups lined up in generic uniforms, which would look—and play—more like a SEC line? If the Bulldog blockers are going to show up, now's the time.
Blazers have multiple targets and the ability—and time--to use them. Nobody knows if State has a deep threat because there's too few opportunities to try the longball.
Defensive Line: State
But it's a much closer call than it oughta be, and State is actually outweighed in the middle.
Three starting seniors should have the edge here, and do. State staff is not happy at all with how their older ‘backers have performed, so look for young pups to get more snaps.
Tough call. Neither group has been a shut-down unit, and while Dawg DBs allow fewer yards and catches the Blazers force more turnovers. But you know which team has a tougher passing game to defend this week
This is really scary as the Blazers have a top-notch return threat and premier placekicker. You have to wonder what's happened to State's specialists, and when the return game is going to produce.
What do you expect? One team is winning and gaining confidence each week, whatever one may think of the competition. The other has absorbed two whippings from conference heavyweights and let the ‘winnable' ones get away. The ‘Homecoming guest' angle will be played up in the Blazer locker room, alright, but just playing for a SEC ‘W' is motivation enough for a roster recruited 90% from the state of Alabama.
Speaking of ‘bottom'…have the Bulldogs hit it at last? That's what the scoreboard is showing as State is just not able to make enough plays to score the once-predictable wins, much less put up a respectable fight against rival powers. That latter was true of the past three seasons also, but those teams did manage to scratch out a few non-conference Ws to gloss over the situation. Not now. If there is any good news it is that the players, or almost all of them, are still buying into the long-term plan and sticking by their staff. The painful twist for Croom & Co. is that they can and do cite areas of individual progress in practices every week, yet the as-a-whole process is slow and everyone else can only judge by what happens in real games. It doesn't help either that by bad luck of the schedule draw the Dogs get Vandy and UAB teams that are on the upswing, while State is at the bottom of a long slide. Or at least we hope it's the bottom. Because it's going to be harder to show obvious uphill progress when we're back in weekly SEC play.