2006 Season Preview (Game Three): U.A.B.

Now that I'm through stirring up controversy, it is time to continue the countdown to college football season.

Previews of Georgia's games against Western Kentucky and South Carolina have already been provided, so now we turn to the Bulldogs' third outing.

(Photograph from All Sports.)

The Game

Georgia v. U.A.B.
Sanford Stadium
Saturday, September 16

The Opponent

This will be the second series meeting between the Georgia Bulldogs and the U.A.B. Blazers, who first faced off in Sanford Stadium three seasons ago. The visiting team is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2005 campaign, in which the squad from Birmingham fell just short of qualifying for the program's second straight bowl bid.

U.A.B. is a prime example of the truth of the S.A.T.-style equation "Conference U.S.A. : S.E.C. :: M.A.C. : Big Ten." In each case, a team from the B.C.S. league almost always ought to beat a team from the less storied conference, but the victory can by no means be taken for granted and upsets occur often enough to require that the home team proceed with extreme caution.

A Brief History of the University of Alabama at Birmingham

The Birmingham campus of the University of Alabama was established the year after I was born. The school has a total enrollment of over 17,500 and a faculty and staff of 18,600, which seems like a pretty favorable student-teacher ratio to me.

U.A.B. has a quality medical school and hospital located in a city that has been the subject of a Drive-By Truckers song and the setting of a novel written by the brother of one of my law partners.

On top of Red Mountain, you will find the world's largest cast iron statue, but, if they're going to call it "Vulcan Park" . . .

. . . shouldn't one of these folks be there somewhere?

To the city's credit, Birmingham also is able to claim ties to Doug and Nico, so they've got that going for them.

A Brief History of Blazer Football

Actually, I could've called this the complete history of Blazer football and it still would have been pretty brief. U.A.B. began playing Division III football in 1991, making the jump to Division I-AA two years later and taking the final step to Division I-A status in 1996.

In a decade of playing at the major college level, the Blazers have been solid but not spectacular, posting records of 4-7 (1998), 5-6 (1996, 1997, 1999, and 2005), 5-7 (2002 and 2003), 6-5 (2001), 7-4 (2000), and 7-5 (2004). U.A.B. is entering its eighth season as a member of Conference U.S.A. and the Blazers have had a losing record in league play just once.

U.A.B. plays its home games at Legion Field, formerly the site of the Iron Bowl and, in succession, the home to the Birmingham Americans, the Birmingham Barracudas, the Birmingham Bolts, the Birmingham Fire, the Birmingham Stallions, and the Birmingham Vulcans of the World Football League, the Canadian Football League, the X.F.L., the World League of American Football, the U.S.F.L., and the World Football League, respectively.

Uh, excuse me, but . . . the Canadian Football League?

Same Legion Field, different University of Alabama. (Photograph from College Gridirons.)

Returning Starters

The Blazers have 12 returning starters, but that figure is a bit misleading, as 24 players on the team's 2006 roster have previous starting experience. U.A.B. also has 51 lettermen back from last year's squad, including 29 seniors.

Fortunately for the 'Dawgs, none of those players are named Darrell Hackney. Fortunately for the Blazers, four of those returning starters are offensive linemen.

Coaching

Watson Brown, the brother of Texas coach Mack Brown, is set to begin his 12th season as the head coach at a school whose football tradition dates back 15 years. After spending three and a half years wearing two hats, Coach Brown gave up his duties as U.A.B.'s director of athletics and focused his full energy on preparing his football team.

Coach Brown is hardly unfamiliar to Bulldog fans. In addition to leading the upset-minded Blazers into Sanford Stadium in 2003, he was a quarterback (1969-1972) and coach (1986-1990) at Vanderbilt. During his playing and coaching stints in Nashville and in Birmingham, he has posted a cumulative record of 0-10 against the 'Dawgs.

Coach Brown's offensive coordinator, Pat Sullivan, also is well known to the Georgia faithful, who will recall his Heisman Trophy-clinching performance in Athens on November 13, 1971, when his Auburn Tigers beat the Bulldogs between the hedges by a 35-20 final margin. I hate Auburn.

Sorry, Big M.

Offense

Because Hackney was the undisputed star under center, the Blazers have some big shoes to fill at quarterback and not a lot of experience with which to fill them. Chris Williams, a senior, is the only one of the contenders who has seen live action in a game for U.A.B., but even he has appeared in a grand total of three games (and thrown just three passes) in the last two seasons.

Williams also happens to be shorter and slower than the challengers, sophomore Sam Hunt and freshman Joseph Webb, so Coach Brown has already committed himself to playing two quarterbacks and the Blazers may not have settled on a starter by the time they pay their visit to the Classic City.

Whichever signal-caller emerges as the go-to guy will have his work cut out for him, as there is little returning experience at receiver, either. Norris Drinkard was U.A.B.'s third-leading receiver last season, but the second pass-catching option is Willie Edwards, who didn't record a single reception in 2005. Steven Brown, the head coach's son, likely will line up in the slot.

Since the Blazer quarterbacks and receivers will be getting on-the-job training in Sanford Stadium, the visiting team is likely to run behind an offensive line that returns all but one of last year's starters. The Blazers have four---count 'em, four---senior running backs: Dan Burks, the third-leading rusher in U.A.B. history (1,845 career yards); Corey White, who holds the school's Division I-A record for rushing touchdowns (19); Marculus Elliott, who compiled 116 rushing yards on just eight carries against Central Florida last fall; and Trey Chaney, who has over 600 career yards despite sharing time in the backfield with those three teammates.

Defense

Coaches always emphasize "senior leadership." If that's a legitimate criterion for evaluating a football team, the Blazer D ought to be good, as cornerback Will Evans, strong safety Chris Felder, linebackers Orlandus King and Mastaki Smith, defensive ends Jermaine McElveen and Larry McSwain, nose tackle Clarence Respress, and tackle Jerrickus Speights all are in their final year of collegiate eligibility.

 

Orlandus King . . . no relation. (Photographs from U.A.B. Athletic Association.)

McSwain was named preseason defensive player of the year in Conference U.S.A. Fortunately, he and his teammates will be going up against a Georgia offense that includes three preseason first-team all-S.E.C. selections.

Although an experienced U.A.B. team underachieved last year, the squad still fell just short of bowl eligibility, posting a 5-6 record and losing four games by a touchdown or less. A veteran defensive unit that remembers giving up 28 points to S.M.U., 31 points to East Carolina, and 37 points to Southern Miss will combine desire, experience, and talent to forge a formidable D.

Special Teams

The kicking game was a distinct weakness for U.A.B. in 2005, when the Blazers lost a 20-19 heartbreaker to Marshall due to a pair of blocked punts and another punt that went only 10 yards.

Last year, the Birmingham squad ranked 11th in Conference U.S.A. in net punting, averaged only 5.9 yards per punt return, and missed four of the team's last 16 field goal attempts.

The Blazers' senior-laden defense and ball-control offense will aid them in their attempt to wage a battle for field position, but, unless U.A.B.'s special teams have improved dramatically in the offseason, the kicking game will be a massive hindrance to the visitors' efforts.

Dawg Food

Because it is important to feast on the flesh of the enemy by incorporating some element of the opposing team into your pregame meal, a portion of each preview will include a suggestion regarding the proper fare for your tailgate.

Since U.A.B. uses this for its logo . . .

. . . I went looking for recipes involving dragons, but all I could come up with were alcoholic beverages and tofu dishes, so I had to go another way. Next, I tried looking for recipes involving the word "blazer" and encountered the same problem.

Then it hit me . . . U.A.B. runs a first-rate hospital, so surely they should have some suggestions about proper diet, shouldn't they? As it turns out, the U.A.B. Health System offers a recipe for chocolate pound cake that will help you eat right. Be sure to bake one up and scarf one down before the game; it'll be good for the 'Dawgs and healthy for you, too.

Take one for the team.

What Worries Me Most

Call it what you like . . . a "trap" game, a "sandwich" game, whatever . . . but this is a dangerous situation. Georgia will be coming off of an emotional (and most probably close) contest against South Carolina and looking ahead to the following Saturday's significant non-conference showdown with Colorado.

Add to that the fact that the fans in Sanford Stadium are apt to be distracted by their efforts to follow other noteworthy games being played around the country that day and you have a scenario that makes it easy to overlook the Blazers. It would be one thing for Georgia to do that against Western Kentucky, where the talent differential would allow the 'Dawgs to overcome any lapse of focus.

U.A.B. cannot be dismissed like a mediocre Division I-AA team, though. The Blazers have put some scares into people, falling just short against Kansas (39-37 in 1998 and 23-20 in 2000), Missouri (31-28 in 1999), Pitt (26-20 in 2002), Tennessee (17-10 in 2005), and, yes, Georgia (16-13 in 2003) and winning on the road against S.E.C. squads such as L.S.U. (13-10 in 2000) and Mississippi State (27-13 in 2004).

 

The Blazers deserve to be taken more seriously than their costumed sideline mascot would tend to indicate. (Photographs from U.A.B. Student Affairs.)

Of the 12 current members of Conference U.S.A., 11 have history with Georgia, as the 'Dawgs have had meetings on the gridiron with Central Florida (1999), East Carolina (1990), Houston (1967, 1968, 1974, and 2001), Marshall (2004), Memphis (1982 and 1984), Rice (1936), Southern Methodist (1966), Southern Miss (1953, 1984, 1990, 1993, and 1996), Tulane (25 times between 1919 and 1985), Tulsa (1946 and 1960), and U.A.B. (2003).

The Red and Black are 27-15-2 all-time against present Conference U.S.A. squads and, although the Bulldogs' only loss to a team that was a member of that league at the time the game was played came in the 1996 season opener against Southern Mississippi, there have been some close calls along the way, featuring scores such as 13-3 (Memphis in 1984 and Marshall in 2004), 19-15 (East Carolina in 1990), 24-23 (U.C.F. in 1999), 18-17 (Southern Miss in 1990), and the aforementioned 16-13 against U.A.B. in 2003.

In short, if the Bulldogs aren't focused, the Blazers are perfectly capable of winning this game. I know it, you know it, and the American people know it . . . but do the Georgia players know it?

I extend my thanks to Bob Dole for his permission to borrow the phrase he made famous.

What Will Happen on Saturday

The timing of the game and the Bulldogs' unfortunate tendency to play up or down to the level of their competition make it difficult for me to believe that the Red and Black will win this one in convincing fashion. At the same time, I do not believe we are in for quite the nailbiter U.A.B. gave the 'Dawgs in 2003, when Georgia was without some key personnel.

The Bulldogs benefit from the fact that the Blazers open on the road against Oklahoma on September 2. After last season's debacle, the Sooners are anxious to get this season started and they should be fired up for their opener. Consequently, I expect O.U. to put on a clinic on how to beat U.A.B., so I am confident that Georgia will go into the game with a solid plan for attacking the visiting squad.

I expect the Bulldogs to come out a bit flat and struggle with the Blazers for a half before making the requisite adjustments (attitudinal as well as tactical) before starting to pull away in the third quarter. I don't expect a blowout by any means, but I anticipate a game that is closer than the final score indicates.

Coming soon: Colorado.

Go 'Dawgs!

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