GAINESVILLE | The University of Florida’s 2017 is long since lost.
One thing that could motivated the Gators on Saturday is to not allow themselves to make Alabama-Birmingham’s season.
UF (3-6) will play host to the Blazers (7-3) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in the now-traditional non-conference game the week before closing the regular season against Florida State.
Fans having a dreadful deja vu moment are justified. While Florida is a 10-point favorite over UAB, it was only four years ago that the Gators suffered one of their most embarrassing losses in history when they fell to Georgia Southern at home on this same week in the schedule after entering the game with a 4-6 record.
It won’t be a 3-foot putt. The Gators lost their fifth game in a row last week against South Carolina and UAB won its third in a row and fifth in six games by easing past Texas-San Antonio 24-19.
“I feel like they’re going to come in playing a lot more aggressive than usual and they’re going to be excited to play the University of Florida,” said Gators offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor. “I feel like they’re going to play a lot harder because they’re going to want to upset us.”
The Blazers won’t win Conference USA but their record is especially impressive since it’s the first season since 2014. UAB disbanded football in 2015 but shortly after that decision a public outcry and a flood of donations resulted in the resumption of play this season.
With one of the top freshman running backs in the nation in Spencer Brown (1,177 yards, second among freshman backs nationally), a shifty dual-threat quarterback in A.J. Erdely (1,741 yards and 13 touchdown passes, 290 yards rushing and 12 TDs) and a defense that is 23rd in the nation in tackles for losses and 37th in passing defense, UAB has the potential to pose the same threat to the Gators as non-Power 5 conference teams have done this season in scoring upsets.
Troy beat LSU. Middle Tennessee beat Syracuse. Northern Illinois beat Nebraska.
UF interim coach Randy Shannon said he’s determined that the Gators not be added to that list.
“It’s a college football team … they’re 7-3 so that should wake everybody’s eyes open,” Shannon said. “Play at your level. Don’t play at nobody else’s level. Don’t take anything for granted.”
Shannon said the Blazers, in just one season so far, have blended into the offense-first mentality of Conference USA. UAB doesn’t have eye-popping offensive numbers but it’s efficient: the Blazers are tied for eighth in the nation with Navy in third-down conversions (.476), are 21st in turnover margin (+0.6 per game) and are 21st in the nation in red-zone offense (.905).
“They’re explosive,” Shannon said. “Conference USA has always been an explosive conference for years. Offense is what they do.”
But Taylor said it’s a defense with athletes flying to the ball.
“Just a lot of talented guys all around,” he said. “They play fast, they play with a lot of speed. They get to the ball. It’s a great defense.”
Compounding Florida’s tailspin is that they got more bad news on the injury front. Center T.J. McCoy is out for the season and quarterback Malik Zaire is day-to-day. Wide receiver Dre Massey is now the backup quarterback to Feleipe Franks, mainly because he has gotten more snaps in the shotgun than the previous “wildcat” quarterback, Kadarius Toney — because of Toney’s nagging injuries.
Linebacker David Reese said the Gator underclassmen will be motivated to send the seniors out with two victories to close the season.
“We want to get the seniors two more wins in the Swamp,” he said. “The last one [FSU] probably is going to means the most to them, playing against their rival at home. We can’t look forward to that. we have to focus on UAB. They’re a great program. They have momentum going their way.”