Bing Crosby dreamed of a White Christmas. But these two green teams won't be fighting in the snow this Christmas season — but rather, on the beach. The Ohio Bobcats (8-4) and UAB Blazers (8-4) will face off in Nassau, Bahamas on December 22 in the only current bowl game played outside of the United States.
It will be the second of two MAC-vs.-C-USA bowl games this bowl season, after Florida Atlantic claimed the first in the 2017 series. In the three-year history of the Bahamas Bowl, the MAC has won just once, as P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan topped Middle Tennessee in 2015. In the other two instances of the game, directional Michigan schools fell to Conference USA opponents. The 2014 edition was particularly memorable, when Central Michigan roared back from a 49-14 deficit to Western Kentucky and nearly won the game after an insane Hail Mary-lateral sequence on the final play.
But in 2017, we'll see one team that has become accustomed to bowl season under the program's most successful coach in history and one team that isn't a frequenter in bowl season.
Setting the Scene:
- Time and Date: December 22, 2017 — 12:30 EST
- Network: ESPN
- Venue: Thomas Robinson Stadium — Nassau, Bahamas
- Spread: Ohio (-7)
- ESPN FPI Predictor: Ohio has 73.5% chance to beat UAB.
- Series History: This is the first-ever matchup between Ohio and UAB.
- Last Bowl Win/Loss: Ohio (Win: 2012 Independence Bowl, Loss: 2016 Dollar General Bowl). UAB (Win: Never, Loss: 2004 Hawaii Bowl).
Ohio enters the game with an 8-4 record. Although this would be viewed as a successful season in past years, it's obvious that the Bobcats are a much better team than their record suggests. Ohio exhibited its true potential when it annihilated the MAC champion Toledo to the tune of 38-10 on a Wednesday night.
But turnovers — specifically fumbling — cost the Bobcats in several other contests. Turnovers contributed to losses against Purdue, Central Michigan, Akron, and Buffalo. Falling to Akron after a three-fumble outing ultimately prevented Ohio from defending its MAC East title.
But not all is gloomy in Athens. The upcoming Bahamas Bowl will be the eighth bowl in nine seasons for Frank Solich's team, and the old football coach hasn't even registered a losing record since 2008. No other MAC school can say the same.
Most importantly, Ohio established an up-tempo, exciting brand of offense which was lacking a year ago. The engineer of the unit is sophomore quarterback Nathan Rourke, who ranks second in the FBS (first among quarterbacks) with 21 rushing touchdowns this season.
The dual-threat passed for 2,018 yards and earned another 882 with his legs. He wasn't the team's immediate starter but you could witness his development throughout the season. As long as he's taking snaps under center, Ohio's future is bright. UAB's run defense is an average unit, so Rourke and friends should be able put up decent numbers against the Blazers.
Ohio's other rushing threats include the tailback duo of A.J. Ouellette and Dorian Brown. Ouellette returned from a 2016 season-ending injury looking better than ever. The junior rushed for a team-high 980 yards and functions as the Bobcats' power back. He is joined by Pittsburgh-native Dorian Brown, whose 142-yard, 2-touchdown performance against Toledo stands as one of the Bobcats' best individual outings of the year. Ouellette receives more carries, but expect a steady dose of Brown in Nassau on Friday.
The passing game isn't nearly as strong of a product as the rushing attack. But that doesn't mean Ohio's receivers aren't capable athletes. Papi White, who used to be an integral part of the rushing game, is the team's leading receiver and also fields punts. Brendan Cope and Andrew Meyer round out Rourke's favorite targets. When Ohio does pass, the team prefers longer routes as opposed to screens, and these receivers perform best away from the line of scrimmage.
Defensively, Ohio's linebacking corps that features Quentin Poling and Chad Moore is one of the scariest in the conference. Poling earned First Team All-MAC honors with 101 tackles, five sacks, and two fumble recoveries. But this Bobcats' defense isn't at the same level it was in 2016 after the losses of Tarell Basham and Blair Brown, but the unit can still deliver exceptional performances, as shown in the Toledo game.
UAB's offense is a middle-of-the-pack unit, averaging 29.6 points and 364 yards per game. Ohio's secondary has plenty of strong tacklers including free safety Kylan Nelson and strong safety Javon Hagan. These two will play a key role in stopping UAB's offense on Friday.
In 2017, Ohio often wins games with its offense outscoring the other team rather than collecting stops on defense. The defense won't be as crucial as the offense in this one, but the unit must prevent UAB from putting up points and forcing the Bobcats' to play catch-up early. Ohio yielded 50 to UMass and 30 to Bowling Green and Kansas (who combined for a 3-21 record). As long as Rourke and company are able to keep the chains moving and avoid fumbles, the Bobcats should be in control.
Welcome back, UAB! The college football world missed you, but bowl season hardly knows you. This is a rare time for the rejuvenated Blazers program to play on national television and show what UAB football is all about. There will be no motivation lacking in Bill Clark's locker room.
Clark, an obvious coach of the year candidate, has done miracle work in Birmingham. After a two-year hiatus from football, he assembled a squad and won eight games this season, including six in Conference USA — the conference with the best bowl win percentage since 2014.
Winning eight games with an upstart program is unheard of, and under Clark's reign, it's clear that UAB could be capable of competing for conference titles shortly. Not to take away from the accomplishment, but it should be noted that the Blazers faced the easiest schedule in the FBS this year, which featured Florida as the team's non-conference toughest opponent.
And the 4-7 Gators destroyed the Blazers, 36-7. But UAB did register unlikely victories over Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee down the stretch. If you take a closer glance at the Blazers' schedule, one question arises: how is this team not 10-2?
UAB was the only team to lose to Charlotte this season, falling 25-24 to the 49ers in overtime. Also, the Blazers (in a result that seemed normal at the time) got clobbered by a 2-10 Ball State team in a September game where they allowed 51 points.
You could argue Ohio is the toughest team on UAB's schedule, so the Bobcats will display some talent that the Blazers haven't seen all season long. UAB counters with plenty of offensive talent, which may give the Blazers a chance in this one.
Middle Tennessee transfer quarterback A.J. Erdely threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2017, steadily leading UAB's offense all season long. He shares the offense with freshman running back Spencer Brown, who finished with five games of 140 rushing yards or more this season.
Ohio Wins If...
Nathan Rourke continues to run the option efficiently. When Ohio works Ouellette and Brown into the rotation, UAB's defense will probably get gassed and the Bobcats will run all over the unit. Not event Toledo's run-stoppers functioned against Solich's talented rushing attack, so the Blazers will definitely have to make halting runs their number one priority.
UAB Wins If...
A lot of things swing in UAB's favor. If Ohio's turnover epidemic suddenly comes back, the Blazers can establish offensive momentum, and Clark's offense definitely has potential to score on the inconsistent Ohio defense. But UAB's players must be in the right place at the right time when these fumbles occur, and the Blazers should play overaggressively on this side of the ball in order to claim the first bowl win in program history.
Conference USA usually wins bowl games, and it is 4-1 against the MAC in the College Football Playoff era. The conference with the best bowl record since 2014 will be pitted against the one with the worst bowl record. But this matchup favors the MAC, as Ohio is a strong team that is a couple bad breaks away from a conference title. The Bobcats have lost three-straight bowls under Solich but they have a clear offensive advantage over UAB, especially in the running game. The Blazers are not equipped to stop the Bobcats' scoring barrage, and this one will be over very quickly.
But, we should appreciate every moment of #TheReturn because UAB football is back, motivated, and in a bowl game for just the second time in program history. Ohio's just the stronger team.
Prediction: Ohio 45, UAB 23