University of Alabama at Birmingham Coach Bill Clark has been coaching long enough to know what a quality opponent looks like.
When asked about his team's mindset going into tonight's matchup with the University of Central Arkansas at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., Clark was adamant that the Blazers wouldn't be playing against a Football Championship Subdivision team that'll be overmatched.
"Central Arkansas is a really quality opponent," said Clark, who is entering his fifth season at UAB. "Coach [Nathan] Brown and that group, you got to see them Saturday night, they're what we thought. They are talented across the board.
"Their special teams were outstanding. Defensively, they're really sound, and offensively, you have a quarterback who led their league in touchdown throws last year. They have a nationally-ranked program, so we are expecting a battle [today]."
Clark's high opinion of the Bears didn't form just becuase of UCA's 24-17 victory over Austin Peay on Saturday night.
He's well-versed in what Brown has done with the Bears since he took over in 2017. The UCA alum has won nearly 65% of his games and guided the Bears to a road victory over another team from Conference USA, Western Kentucky, last year.
Brown is equally up to date on what Clark has accomplished at UAB.
"The one thing about UAB is that they're well coached," he said. "Bill Clark has one of the better coaching winning percentages at any level. He's done a tremendous job since he's been there. There's a reason why they've won division titles in Conference USA in back-to-back years."
The Bears, ranked No. 11 in the FCS, are coming off a conference title of their own after sharing the Southland crown with Nicholls State a year ago.
UCA notched its seventh come-from-behind victory in its past 14 games Saturday when junior quarterback Breylin Smith fired a 10-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Lujuan Winningham with 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The defense closed the door when freshman defensive back Tamaurian Wilson came away with an interception on the game's final play.
The Bears remained in Alabama afterward and have been in Birmingham all week in preparation for the Blazers, who own the nation's fourth longest active home-winning streak (18 games). Brown said practice sessions have gone well for his team despite being in unfamiliar territory.
"We're used to coming home and preparing on our campus, sleeping in our own beds," he said. "Instead, things were kind of flipped upside down a bit. Staying in a hotel room, having walk-throughs and meetings in the hotel lobby, that's just different for us.
"We're looking at it as a blessing, though. It's worked out well, and we're hoping we can take advantage [today]."
UAB went 9-5 last season, reached a bowl game and has won more games (28) than any other team in its conference since 2017. The Blazers also have an abundance of playmakers on offense, starting with running back Spencer Brown.
The 6-0, 220-pound senior is the team's career rushing leader with more than 3,000 yards.
"We know they're going to try to run the ball," said UCA sophomore defensive back Cameron Godfrey, who recorded a team-high nine tackles a week ago. "I thought we did a pretty good job last Saturday, and this week, our mentality is to go in and stop the run while containing the pass. But we know it won't be easy, so we've got to execute."
UAB would prefer to churn out yards on the ground, but junior quarterback Tyler Johnston is expected to test UCA's secondary. He threw for 2,250 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, with many of his targets going to senior wideouts Austin Watkins and Myron Mitchell. That duo combined to catch 91 passes for 1,646 yards and 11 scores.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Blazers have made their mark. UAB ranked No. 8 nationally last season in total defense, allowing 301 yards per game.
Winningham said the Bears are aware of how good the Blazers have been on the defensive side of the ball, but he's confident in what UCA will bring to the table on offense.
"For us, it's about getting into a rhythm and making the routine plays," he said. "We know they've got a good defense, but I also know we've got a receiving core that's going to get open if [Smith] gets time. It's about execution for us."
At a glance
CENTRAL ARKANSAS AT ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM
WHEN 7 p.m. today
WHERE Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
RADIO KUCA 91.3 FM/The Point 94.1
RECORDS Central Arkansas 1-0, UAB 0-0
COACHES Nathan Brown (16-9 in third season at UCA and overall); Bill Clark (34-19 in fifth season at UAB and 45-23 in sixth year overall)
SERIES First meeting