Breakers vs. Stallions: An early-season USFL treat
The fans of Birmingham will come out in force to watch their Stallions battle the Breakers in a USFL showdown, RJ Young writes.
By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If Saturday’s Down South Showdown between the Birmingham Stallions and the New Orleans Breakers feels like a prizefight between two heavyweights, that’s because it is.
Nothing more than a claim to the pound-for-pound — or Power Ranked for Power Ranked if you will — best team in the entire United States Football League is up for grabs, and to the victor goes the red, white and blue spoils.
At each USFL game, the national anthem is sung, and the virtues and pride of this nation are put on display: Toughness, grit, perseverance and pride don’t take talent.
They take want-to.
USFL fans want this game like we wanted Floyd Mayweather Jr. to fight Manny Pacquiao. And the city of Birmingham will no doubt be ready.
They were certainly ready in the first game of this inaugural USFL season, when their Stallions (2-0, 1-0) took possession of the ball at their own 41-yard line with 1:24 left to play, down 24-21 to the New Jersey Generals. The sound emanating from the seats at Protective Stadium felt entirely one-sided.
Stallions fans, Birmingham denizens, mounted a raucous cheer for their team — a hometown advantage in a city where every one of the league's eight teams must play.
As Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith jogged out to take the snap from behind center, the Stallions staff and players motioned with their hands to ask the crowd to quiet down so the offense could hear the cadence.
They'd jumped the gun there, as the crowd became quiet just as soon as it saw Smith settle in to make the call.
The comeback win set a high bar both in excitement and attendance that the Birmingham fans and Stallions have felt a responsibility to meet.
The Stallions' next game was the best-attended of the second week’s games, too, as the Stallions needed a late interception to remain undefeated, leading Stallions coach Skip Holtz to be vociferous in his praise of the city’s support for their team for a second consecutive week — even during a weekend when NASCAR had descended on Talladega just an hour east.
"You hear them," said Holtz of the crowd. "They're loud. They're educated. They're cheering the right things."
And the Birmingham crowd’s impact is being felt even amongst teams the Stallions have yet to play.
"I had a coach tell me," Holtz said, "‘I'm excited to play y'all because I'm excited to play against your crowd.’ That's a real testament to the people that are coming out, the noise they're making, the way they're supporting this team. I just hope this thing keeps growing and getting bigger and bigger. My goal is, by the end of the year, I'd like to sell that son of a gun out."
Birmingham is consistently among the top-performing TV markets in the country for college football, and fans are relishing having professional football at a time when football normally has not been played.
The best most could hope for is a spirited, scripted practice among the UAB Blazers or Alabama Crimson Tide before having to go back to waiting four months for real football to be played.
Now, not only are they gonna get real football, but Saturday night (8 p.m. ET on FOX and streaming in the FOX Sports app.) features the last two undefeated teams left in the league.
The Stallions face Larry Fedora’s Breakers (2-0, 1-0) for the chance to move into sole ownership of first place in the South Division and plant a marker nearly a third of the way through the season as the best team in the league heading into May.
The Breakers have been blue-crushing their competition, though. In their 34-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Bandits, they saw players on both offense (Kyle Sloter) and defense (Vontae Diggs) earn USFL Player of the Week honors.
Running back T.J. Logan and his 4.37 40-yard dash speed have scored touchdowns in each of New Orleans’ games, and defensive end Davin Bellamy has recorded four sacks in two games.
Add to this a wide receiver corps that features former Ohio State wideout Johnnie Dixon and former Arkansas State wideout Jay Adams, and you can surmise the Breakers look good enough to break the Stallions.
Holtz and Fedora are more than familiar with each other, too. In Conference USA, Fedora won the league title in 2011 as head coach at Southern Miss, and Holtz won C-USA Coach of the Year at two different programs — East Carolina (2008) and Louisiana Tech (2016) — eight years apart.
Indeed, it was Holtz who helped talk Fedora into accepting the head-coaching gig at New Orleans.
"After I had gotten into it," Holtz said, "I was on the phone talking Larry Fedora into it, about how much fun this is gonna be and what we’re gonna have the opportunity to get into."
He couldn’t have known then he was talking to perhaps the man who would be opposite him on the opposing sideline of the biggest game of the year so far. Nor could Fedora had known that his team would quickly announce itself as one of the best in the league.
Fedora was prescient in noting the level of competition he’d face, though.
"I mean there’s some dang good coaches in this league," he said.
Holtz and Fedora have each won eight bowl games. As Saturday’s Down South Showdown kicks off, there’s more than bragging rights at stake in a game that feels like a bowl game between two undefeated programs with everything to play for.
Somebody’s "O" has got to go.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.