Ole Miss and UAB meet for the first time in football on Homecoming Day in Oxford, Oct. 17.
It's also the first of two football games scheduled between the two schools. The Rebels will play in Birmingham in 2012.
The Blazers enter their third season under head coach Neil Callaway, previously a longtime SEC assistant coach at Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia. Callaway has yet to record a winning season in two years but is rebuilding the program step by step.
The Blazers, 4-8 in 2008 and 3-5 in Conference USA, reported today for the 2009 season with an optimism they haven't had in recent seasons.
Much of the reason for the optimism is the return of so many players from last year's team that finished with wins in two of its last three games. Its only loss in that period was a four-point loss to Conference USA champion East Carolina.
The Blazers return 51 letterwinners with 17 of 21 starters back. Perhaps the biggest difference for Callaway and his staff will be the overall scholarship numbers for his team.
After inheriting a roster in 2007 short on numbers and experience, the Blazers have had to compete the past two seasons with less than 70 scholarship players on the roster. As UAB begins preseason drills this week, Callaway expects the number of scholarship players to be just shy of 80.
"We are excited about the upcoming year," Callaway said. "We finally have our numbers built up. We will be somewhere in the 78-79 range as far as scholarship football players. We have a lot of guys returning and a lot who played as freshmen over the last two years. When you put that along with us signing 10 or so junior college players, I think we will have a lot more experience on this football team."
The Blazers will be led by senior quarterback Joe Webb who is coming off his first season as the team's full-time starting signal-caller. Webb's performance was impressive in 2008 as he passed for more than 2,300 yards and set a C-USA record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,021.
"Last year was my first year of playing quarterback and I learned a lot," Webb said. "I feel like I have made a lot of improvements and learned from my mistakes by watching a lot of film. This year, I think I will be a better quarterback."
Webb was named to the Watch List for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, given annually to the nation's top senior quarterback.
UAB also has a deep and experienced receiving corps with junior Frantrell Forrest, senior Mark Ferrell, along with tight ends Jeffery Anderson and Zach Lankford leading the way.
Senior center Jake Seitz is the bellcow of an offensive line that is one of the most experienced in college football when looking at the number of career starts among the returnees.
The Blazers know in order to make a significant improvement and reach their goals this fall, they have to be better on defense. The defensive line returns intact while Callaway expects several junior college transfers to make an impact at linebacker and at safety.
"Overall, we have not been very good defensively over the past two years, largely due to a lack of personnel," Callaway said. "We have not had the personnel to match up with other teams. But I feel like we have four safeties that can play. We have two or three junior college linebackers that are new to us that we will depend on.
"I think it's the first time we have had the ability to match up with opponents. My biggest concern is that we gel and play together. A lot of them have never played and worked together so we have to do a good job with them as a staff to make sure we pull them together and make sure they are heading in the right direction."
The Blazers, who open their 2009 season with back-to-back conference home games (Sept. 5 vs. Rice and Sept. 12 vs. SMU), will hold their first preseason practice Thursday.
UAB is still rebuilding its program under third-year head coach Neil Callaway. The Blazers should be an improved team this year, and they'll be catching the Rebels at perhaps an opportune time - between big SEC games against Alabama and Arkansas.
Ole Miss should win the game, all things considered. But they don't need to take a Blazer team trying to make headlines lightly. Not on Homecoming or any game day.
Scouting the Opponents: UAB
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