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What UAB’s football coach had to say about drawing BYU in the Independence Bowl

While the Cougars are doing their best to hide their disappointment over not getting an NY6 invitation, the Blazers are thrilled to be playing a ranked team just six hours away from their Birmingham campus

UAB coach Bill Clark talks to his players during game against UTSA, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in San Antonio.
UAB head coach Bill Clark talks to his players during game against UTSA, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in San Antonio. Clark and his players are excited at the prospect of playing No. 13 BYU in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 18, 2021, in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Eric Gay, Associated Press

Last Sunday’s announcement that No. 13 BYU would play unranked UAB in the 2021 Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl was met with less-than-glowing reviews, at least among Cougars fans.

In Birmingham, Alabama, there has been an entirely different reaction. The Blazers are viewing the matchup with gleaming eyes and resplendent hearts. They see it as a brilliant way to grow their brand.

The 45th iteration of the country’s 11th-oldest bowl game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. MST in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 18 and will be televised nationally by ABC.

“Really proud of our selection to the bowl game, and man, what a great opponent we’ve got in BYU,” UAB coach Bill Clark said Monday. “I know (UAB’s players) are all going to be excited for the challenge ahead.”

Opportunities to knock off nationally ranked teams in bowl games don’t come around often for Conference-USA teams such as UAB, Clark said, and the Blazers (8-4) are determined to make the most of it.

“BYU is a big-time, quality opponent,” Clark said. “We know we got our work cut out for us. … We have a lot of work to do to compete with them, but we are excited. It is a great step for our program, no doubt.”

BYU coach Kalani Sitake called UAB “a wonderful team” in his news conference Monday, and Cougars Tyler Batty and Blake Freeland said they will be just as motivated as the Blazers will be. But what else were they supposed to say?

The Cougars (10-2) will be motivated to put an exclamation point on a nice season and show the College Football Playoff selection committee that they deserved better than their No. 13 ranking; The Blazers said they are stoked to face a nationally known brand just six hours from their campus across the Louisiana-Alabama state line.

“Obviously we know the history of BYU,” Clark said. “… We know what the name BYU means, and what BYU has done.”

BYU, which is No. 12 in The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 14 in the coaches poll, will be the highest ranked team to play in the game’s 45-year history. LSU, about four hours away in Baton Rouge, was No. 15 in 1997 when the Tigers defeated Notre Dame 27-9 in front of 50,459 fans, an attendance record that still stands.

“There is a lot of pride and tradition in that bowl game, so we are really honored to be a part of it,” Sitake said.

As one of the first bowl games this bowl season, and on a prime viewing slot on a Saturday afternoon, the matchup should draw plenty of viewers. The Independence Bowl is back on ABC for the first time since 2014, and is being played before Christmas for the first time since 1990.

Clark said the Blazers were disappointed that they didn’t make it to the conference championship game for the first time in four years, but getting an Indy Bowl invite softened the blow.

“We know we are playing a great team in a great, historic bowl game, so there is no doubt the guys are excited,” he said.

The Cougars are only a seven-point favorite; BYU, which has defeated six Power Five opponents, is not as esteemed by computer-generated rating systems as it is by humans participating in polls and the CFP committee.

BYU is just No. 30 in the Sagarin ratings and No. 39 in ESPN’s College Football Power Index; UAB is No. 75 in Sagarin and No. 63 in the FPI, a spot below BYU’s bowl opponent last year, UCF.

Which team will draw the most fans?

“Hearing from some folks, the BYU fans kinda make it their home (wherever they play),” Clark said. “Shoot, we may not be at a neutral site. It might be more of a BYU fan base (venue). But I think that says a lot about who they are, and it says they have a national program. … It will make for a good atmosphere, no doubt.”

Like BYU, which has gone 21-3 the past two seasons, UAB has an intriguing backstory as well.

UAB’s football program was dropped after the 2014 season, then reinstated after a two-season hiatus in 2015 and 2016.

In its first year back, UAB played in the Bahamas Bowl. It was in the Boca Raton Bowl in 2018 and the New Orleans Bowl in 2019, all under Clark, who was first hired in 2014.

In 2018, after UAB downed Northern Illinois 37-13 in Boca Raton, Clark was named National Coach of the Year. He is 48-26 at UAB, almost identical to what Kalani Sitake (48-28) is in six seasons at BYU.

Most bowl projections had BYU playing C-USA champion and No. 24-ranked UTSA in the game, but Clark says he wasn’t surprised when the bid came UAB’s way. UTSA is playing in the Frisco Bowl against Mountain West runner-up San Diego State.

“I know just from talking to conference folks, they feel like we are (just as good),” Clark said. “It really came down to a play here or a play there against UTSA (in a 34-31 loss to the Roadrunners). I guess our conference feels like we are a good representative and are kind of carrying the ball for Conference USA, and I think BYU, obviously they are a team … good enough to play against the top teams in the country, obviously, from what they have done this year.

“For us, it is an honor to be going and playing against a very good team,” Clark continued. “So we take it as a compliment.”

And a chance to shine.