BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The eyes of the sports world will be on UAB tonight, and it’s not just because the Blazers are hosting the first game of the season in college football’s most prominent subdivision.
The Blazers welcome Central Arkansas to Legion Field, where crews already have blocked off every other row to help with social distancing. It’s the kickoff of a unique season, and many observers will be watching safety procedures as closely as the game.
“The cynics are always there. The critics are always there, and they will be on Thursday night,” UAB athletics director Mark Ingram said. “They won’t point out the thousand things we do right. They will point out the very few things that we don’t do right.”
For that reason, Ingram is asking fans attending the contest to wear masks, refrain from tailgating and follow all other guidelines.
“What we don’t want is to have some outbreak from the game that shuts that opportunity down for our players or for our fans,” he said. “And if we’ll do this right, we know we can, and we know we can continue playing the rest of the season. So we’re counting on everybody to cooperate.”
Safety aside, the game carries plenty of weight on its own. Central Arkansas is coming off a 24-17 win over Austin Peay Saturday night in the nation’s first game in any division. It was a battle of teams ranked in the Top 15 of the STATS preseason Football Championship Subdivision poll. Tonight’s game, the first football bowl subdivision game of the year, airs on ESPN3 and figures to draw a large audience of football-starved viewers.
“It’s exciting,” UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III said. “When you get to play on national TV, you’re always ready to go.”
Central Arkansas has been on UAB’s schedule for only two weeks. UAB’s original opening opponent, New Mexico State, postponed its season Aug. 13, leaving the Blazers in need of an opponent. When Ingram found out Central Arkansas and Austin Peay were playing in Montgomery to open the season, he saw an opportunity: the Bears could drive up I-65 after their game against the Governors and spend the week in Birmingham before continuing the trip back to Arkansas. So UAB offered to make hotel and practice arrangements for the Bears and to handle their COVID-19 testing. Central Arkansas agreed.
Blazers players are happy just to have the chance to compete.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” linebacker Kris Moll said. “We weren’t sure if we were going to play this season, so we’ve been working hard just in case we did play. We were hoping we were going to play.”
The significance of tonight’s game and of having a chance to play this season is not lost on UAB head coach Bill Clark.
“We wanted to find a way for (the players) and really for, as I say, the community and our country,” he said. “We think it’s that important.”
UAB and Central Arkansas kick off the game at 7 p.m.
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