Boca Raton Bowl – UAB Blazers v Northern Illinois Huskies (Dec 18)

College football bowl season is in full swing. And while we are awaiting the College Football Playoffs and National Championship game, we’ll cover the bowl games that catch our attention. We could write something on all 39 bowls… but some of the matchups just aren’t that compelling. But where there’s a story, or a matchup between top teams, we’ll try to write something.

Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl – December 18, 2018 – 7:00pm EST, ESPN

This bowl matchup, typical of bowl games that occur during the first week of bowl season, will feature the UAB Blazers (10-3; 7-1 Conference USA) and the Northern Illinois Huskies (8-5, 6-2 MAC). Both teams were conference champions, having won their respective championship game during championship weekend. It will be the first meeting ever between the two teams.

UAB Football in Purgatory

Before we get to the matchup on the field, I just wanted to briefly talk about the UAB football team’s return to FBS play. In December of 2014, school president Ray Watts announced that the team would be shut down, in part because of a lack of success and funding provided to the program since its inception in 1991. As a lower-tier FBS program, UAB was never expected to compete for national championships, but the school felt it could no longer justify funding a “losing program” at the cost of the rest of the university.

Almost immediately, the figures cited by the president were called into question. CBS Sports discovered numbers that were not counted or calculated incorrectly in determining the football program’s impact to the university’s budget. Another consulting firm – initially retained by the university until they didn’t like the results of the study – indicated, in part, that the athletic department “has a tendency to understate revenues and overstate costs.”

Furthermore, the loss of football at the school would likely lead to the other remaining sports from being removed from Conference USA. While this is not as lucrative as some other conferences, the affiliation comes with guaranteed media rights’ payments and other revenue streams, something an independent – or a school not tied to a major football conference – would miss out on.

Should be More than Just the Tide

The University of Alabama Board of Trustees seems to have no problem with its flagship school paying its head coach $8.3 million this year in order to cut a football program completely. Granted, the money that the Alabama football team generates is pretty substantial – it generated a reported $46 million profit in 2017 – but the Board of Trustees should take the whole university system into account and not just that of the biggest school in the state.

Obviously, the football team has come back, and this is their second season since returning in 2017. Expectations were pretty low for the team last season, yet they managed improve on the last season before the break, going 8-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA. That was good enough to earn an invite to the Bahamas for the Bahamas Bowl, where they lost 41-6 against the Ohio Bobcats. But UAB football was back, and they followed that good season with a great one this year, and even returned to the rankings for the first time since 2004.

If You’re Looking For Offense…

As mentioned, these clubs both won their conferences, and took similar paths to do so. UAB averaged 208.8 yards per game rushing the ball (29th in FBS), and scored just over 29 points a game. It’s on the defensive side of the ball where they truly shined, however, boasting a Top 20 defense in all yardage categories and the 10th best scoring defense in FBS.

Northern Illinois followed a similar path to their success on the season, though they weren’t nearly as good. Its rushing offense was in the top half of the country (171.5 yards per game; ranked 60th), but a passing offense ranked 119th in the nation (153.5 yards per game) brought their overall offense all the way down to 122nd. They also scored just over 20 points per game, which is also 119th in the country. They were better on defense, with an even better rushing defense (109.7 yards per game; 14th) than UAB, though their pass defense left a bit to be desired. They also surrendered more points than they scored, which is usually not a recipe for success.

Close Only Matters in Horseshoes, etc.

I will say one thing about the Huskies: they kept most games close that they did lose. The largest loss on the season was a 26-point loss to Iowa during week one. Their average margin of defeat was 13.6 points (over five losses), which, while not great, was better than the average of 22.7 (in three losses) for UAB. But UAB was definitely more capable of scoring, as evidenced by per game average, and only failed to exceed NIU’s averaging scoring output in three games this season.

We All Win with a UAB Win

I don’t know what the score will be, or which trend will prevail, but I remain pleased that UAB has a football team after the incompetence that led to its temporary hiatus. As much as I dislike the money involved in major college athletics sometimes – primarily because they should probably be playing players in programs that generate $46 MILLION in profit – there can still be “feel good” stories out there that don’t even account for the result on the field.

That said, I want to see UAB come out on top and win their first bowl game ever. That would be pretty fun for them and all the students and alumni that fought to bring the program back.

Until next time…


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