SHREVEPORT, La. — Longtime observers of University of Alabama-Birmingham football say a win over No. 13 BYU in Saturday’s Independence Bowl would be the biggest victory in the once-eliminated program’s entire history.
For the 10-2 Cougars, who hoped and dreamed most of the season to make it into a New Year’s Six bowl, but were denied a few weeks ago when the final College Football Playoff rankings were released, a win would not represent anything historic or all that notable.
Sure, BYU is trying to get to 11 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006 and 2007 and a better ranking when all is said and done. But a win is expected for the Cougars, while a victory for the Blazers — touchdown underdogs — would be cause for major celebration in north central Alabama and throughout Conference USA.
In other words, all the pressure is clearly on BYU in the 1:30 p.m. MST showdown that will be televised nationally by ABC.
For the Cougars, who have won five straight games since dropping back-to-back October contests against Boise State and Baylor, it appears to be a no-win situation in the rain at Independence Stadium.
Time will tell.
Of course, head coach Kalani Sitake would have none of that thinking in Friday’s pregame news conference at the stadium, saying pride and the chance to play together one final time is motivation enough for the Cougars.
“I don’t really focus on the outcome of the game as much as I am about the guys being up and ready to play the game at their very best,” Sitake said. “For us, focusing on the fundamentals and the little details that matter the most is what it is about.”
Sitake said regardless of what happens in the soggy South on Saturday, the Cougars have surpassed the expectations that everyone had for them except themselves.
“We’re not really concerned with that stuff (about a ranked team playing a heavy underdog),” Sitake said. “To be honest with you, nobody thought we’d be ranked in the preseason.”
Meanwhile, UAB coach Bill Clark acknowledged in more ways than one that knocking off the Cougars would be epic for the program that had to be revived a few years ago after school officials had eliminated it.
“I think any bowl win is big, but (BYU) is one of those programs that you grow up watching. You watch them in big games,” Clark said. “You watch the history. There’s a big tradition there. … We expect to win. They expect to win. So obviously being a history buff, especially a college football history buff, about their program, a win would mean a lot, obviously.”
Tight end Gerrit Prince said it is a chance to further UAB’s growing reputation and increase its brand beyond C-USA. The Blazers are excited to be playing a six-hour drive from their campus.
“We know how good they are,” Prince said. “They’re smart. They do what they do very well. We know we’re going to have to bring our A-game, and we hope to do that.”
It is setting up to be one of those classic bowl games where the team that is most excited to be there performs the best, as BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick noted Thursday before BYU’s final full practice of the season. On Friday, the Cougars rested, participated in some media stuff, and had a short walkthrough (non-padded practice) at the stadium.
After reporters heard Clark, Prince, offensive lineman Colby Ragland and safety Dy’Jonn Turner talk about the opportunity that lies in front of the Blazers and how fired up they are to face the higher-profile program, the Cougars were posed the same question.
How hungry is BYU?
“We’re extremely hungry,” said junior receiver Gunner Romney, who will decide after the game whether he will return to Provo for another season or enter the NFL draft. “You know that is probably the No. 1 thing when it comes to bowl prep that people talk about is that whoever is the most motivated wins this game.”
Romney said since BYU began practicing a week after its 35-31 win over USC on Nov. 27 that “practices have been more competitive” than they have been all season.
“We have been getting chippy with each other and getting in fights because everyone is competitive and everyone is hungry to play another game,” Romney said. “So it’s just another opportunity to go have some fun.”
“Not even just the game, it’s more of the competition (that matters),” Allgeier said. “… They’re a respected program and we’re just excited to play. It’s another game we get to play. We’re on track to win if we play our best and play BYU football.”
Although assistant head coach Ed Lamb said Wednesday’s practice in Shreveport lacked energy and focus, Sitake said Thursday’s was much better.
“The focus has been razor-sharp from these young men,” Sitake said.
Neither team is as healthy as it wants to be.
The Cougars will be without starting tight end Isaac Rex, starting center James Empey, starting receiver Neil Pau’u and starting linebacker Payton Wilgar. However, offensive linemen Harris LaChance and safety Chaz Ah You are among the recently injured who should be available Saturday.
“I think we probably got a little healthier on the offensive side, but on the defensive side not as much,” Sitake said.
The game will feature two of the best running backs in the country, BYU’s Allgeier and UAB’s DeWayne “D-Bo” McBride.
“Whatever records I break will just be a bonus because I am not really thinking about that until the end of the season,” said Allgeier, who is tied with Marshall’s Rasheen Ali and Utah’s Tavion Thomas for most rushing touchdowns this season, 20.
Sitake said the Cougars know they have a big target on their backs, but it is a situation they are familiar with, having been big favorites in a lot of games they played last season when they went 11-1 and several this season on the road to 10 victories to date.
“I have a lot of respect for UAB and how hungry they are,” Sitake said. “Our program focuses on one thing, and that’s what we are trying to accomplish right away. We are not really worried about the future, not really worried about what other people say.
“So there’s a number (ranking) attached to our name. That doesn’t drive us. That doesn’t affect who we are. We are focused on playing this game the right way. … We can live with the results afterwards if we do that.”