Who: UAB (10-3) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)
What: Boca Raton Bowl
When: 7 p.m. ET, Tuesday, December 18
Where: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida
Spread: UAB -2.5
How to watch: ESPN, WatchESPN
How about UAB, which had its football program shut down for two seasons, but reemerged even stronger, going 8-5 in its first season back and 10-3 this year. UAB Coach Bill Clark led the Blazers to a 6-6 record in his first season as head coach in 2014, then the program closed its doors for the 2015 and 2016 season, and he has since added two more wins in each of the last two seasons.
The team’s 10 wins this season is the most since UAB joined the FBS ranks in 1996. It was impressive enough that the Blazers won the Conference USA title in their second year back as they beat Middle Tennessee 27-25 on the road one week after losing 27-3 in the same stadium but the possibility of winning 11 games, including the first bowl win in program history, was unimaginable when the school lost its football program after the 2014 season.
The Blazers are backed by what is arguably a top-20 defense in college football that holds opponents to an average of 17.3 points per game and less than a 28 percent success rate on both third and fourth down conversion attempts. UAB averages more than 200 rushing yards per game and typically has a clear advantage over its opponents in time of possession, so the Blazers are a bit of an old-school, smashmouth football team that likes to run the ball and plays strong defense.
That could be problematic for Northern Illinois, which averages just 20.7 points and 150 passing yards per game. The Huskies rank 120th in both categories. It’s difficult to find an area on offense that Northern Illinois does particularly well compared to the rest of the country.
This is the fifth time in six seasons under Coach Rod Carey that Northern Illinois has won at least eight games but the program has leveled off a bit after winning 11 or 12 games every year from 2010 to 2014.
However, Northern Illinois’ 8-5 record this year is arguably misleading for the MAC champions. Three of its losses were against Iowa (33-7), Utah (17-6) and Florida State (37-19). Its other two losses were by seven points or less against Miami (OH) (13-7) and Western Michigan (28-21).
If you like watching bowl games to scout potential NFL draft prospects, keep an eye on Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith, who has 24.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks this season.
Rushing yards per game: 208 (28th)
Average time of possession: 33:07 (13th)
Third down conversion percentage: 44.3% (27th)
Plays from scrimmage of at least 10 yards: 195 (28th)
Points allowed per game: 17.3 (9th)
Rushing yards allowed per game: 118 (20th)
Passing yards allowed per game: 181 (16th)
Opponent third down conversion percentage: 25.0% (2nd)
Opponent fourth down conversion percentage: 27.8% (1st)
Limiting opponent plays from scrimmage of at least 10 yards: 149 (28th)
Players to watch
RB Spencer Brown — 247 carries, 1,149 rushing yards, 16 TD
WR Xavier Ubosi — 28 receptions, 610 receiving yards, 5 TD
LB Chris Woolbright — 74 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT
DL Jamell Garcia-Williams — 42 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 4 PBU
Points allowed per game: 21.5 (26th)
Rushing yards allowed per game: 109 (14th)
Players to watch
RB Tre Harbison — 188 carries, 985 rushing yards, 4 TD
WR Jauan Wesley — 49 receptions, 585 receiving yards, 2 TD
LB Antonio Jones-Davis — 119 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks
DE Sutton Smith — 56 total tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 15.0 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 3 recovered fumbles