What to expect in Birmingham Stallions vs. Houston Gamblers

The defending champion Birmingham Stallions find themselves in a familiar position with two games left in the USFL regular season — sitting atop the South Division at 6-2.

The Stallions can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Houston Gamblers in Memphis on Sunday (2 p.m. ET) at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.

At 5-3, the Gamblers remain in the playoff hunt, but they need a victory to keep up with the rest of the division, as one of either New Orleans or Memphis will be 6-3 after they play each other this weekend. Houston head coach Curtis Johnson has his team playing well down the backstretch of the schedule, with the Gamblers winning five of their last six games.

Here’s one thing to watch for each team heading into this weekend’s contest.

Stallions: Alex McGough has offense peaking at the right time

The Florida native has been the engine driving Birmingham’s offense and likely is the frontrunner for league MVP.

McGough leads the league in passing touchdowns (16) and completion percentage (68.1%) and is third in passing yards (1,614). He’s also been productive as a runner, totaling 337 yards on the ground with four scores.

But what has elevated Birmingham’s offense to another level has been McGough’s ability to get other playmakers involved. Running back C.J. Marable has become a bigger part of the offense, with 631 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.

Tight end Jace Sternberger has proven a lethal red zone threat, with 26 catches for 375 receiving yards and five scores. And McGough has developed a good rapport with receiver Davion Davis, who has totaled 27 receptions for 437 receiving yards and four touchdowns. 

The Stallions need all three of those pass-catchers and McGough clicking against a Houston defense that is holding teams to 19 points per contest over the last six games.

"I feel comfortable and confident in any single person running any single route," McGough said. "And that’s what you get when your practice the way we do, and how coach (Skip Holtz) pushes us to the details of each play. And I don’t think you would get that if you let something slide." 

Gamblers: Can Houston get Kenji Bahar and the passing game on track?

Running back Mark Thompson has been an unstoppable force as a runner for the Gamblers. He leads the USFL with 13 touchdowns since returning from an injury and making his season debut in Week 3. However, the Gamblers could use some big plays in the passing game to keep defenses from loading the box to stop their big bruising back.

Bahar finished with 11-of-20 for 146 passing yards and a touchdown in Houston’s close win over the Pittsburgh Maulers last week. For the season, he has completed 59.2% of his passes for 1,326 yards, with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. 

One thing working in Houston’s favor is the Gamblers are 4-2 in one-score games. So, execution down the stretch by Bahar, Thompson and other impact players has been more good than bad so far this season with a playoff berth still within reach.

"I preach this is just like the NFL," Johnson said. "Their games are going to come down to the last possession. It’s going to come down to the two-minute drill. We practice the two-minute drills a couple times a week. They do the same thing, working on situational football on defense. That’s how this league is. It’s a good football league.

"There are outstanding coaches (in our league). Look at our league, all the coaches have NFL experience. That’s why the game is played like the NFL." 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.