By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The UAB football program has been better than ever since its resurrection.
The Blazers (8-1, 6-0 Conference USA) enter Saturday’s home finale against Southern Miss with a chance to claim a berth in the league title game in just the second season since the program’s resurrection following a university-ordered shutdown. UAB is the home of the nation’s top scoring defense.
A 16-6 record on the comeback trail exceeds even coach Bill Clark’s expectations.
“I think in my wildest dreams, it would be something like this,” Clark said.
This could wind up being the Blazers’ best season. The 1993 team posted the program’s best record, 9-2 as a Division I-AA (now FCS) independent.
What’s more impressive is how UAB got to this point.
The program was shut down, along with rifle and bowling, in a drastic cost-cutting measure after the 2014 season — Clark’s first — even though the Blazers had become bowl eligible for the first time in a decade.
Resurrected after six months and an outpouring of community and financial support, UAB went 8-5 last season after the program’s return while luxuriating in new facilities that represent a huge upgrade from the old high school-like digs. The reward for players — and Clark — who stuck around was an expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas Bowl.
The prize this season could ultimately be a conference title shot and perhaps a national ranking.
UAB, whose only ranking came at No. 24 for one week in 2004, received the 30th-most votes in the latest AP Top 25. It might not be much to the juggernaut down the road, No. 1 Alabama, but for the Blazers it’s a sign that national respect is growing.
They’re not just a feel-good story any more. They’re a pretty good team.
The first task was proving that locally.
“When I first showed up at the end of August in 2016, you really didn’t hear much about UAB,” guard Malique Johnson said. “You didn’t see much UAB anything around here. All you saw was the Tide or whatever. Now, you go into Wal-Mart and you’re starting to see banners and posters and everything.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to get the respect we deserve.”
UAB has won a school-record seven straight since a 47-24 loss at Coastal Carolina in Week 2. The Blazers have allowed just 62 points in the other eight games combined.
They’re allowing a nation’s best 12.1 points per game while holding CUSA opponents to about half that on average. UAB is the first Conference USA team to record three shutouts in a season.
Not to be outdone, UAB’s offense set school records last weekend with 668 total yards and 419 rushing yards in a 52-3 win over UTSA . The Blazers did it with backup quarterback Tyler Johnston III, Alabama’s Mr. Football in 2015, making his first start in place of an injured A.J. Erdely.
Clark hasn’t indicated who will start against Southern Miss.
UAB’s success might make Clark a commodity for bigger programs seeking head coaches, though he says he’s happy at UAB and focused on his team.
In the meantime, he’s got the added pressure of trying to keep making sure the UAB supporters who helped bring the program back don’t get buyer’s remorse from the on-field product.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Clark, a coach’s son, said. “That’s not really a fun world to live in, but it’s really the only way I know how to do it because I know what comes with wins and I know what comes with losses.
“I felt a lot of pressure this year to (show), it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t that we snuck up on people, this is a real program. We do have these goals and expectations of trying to be a national team.”
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