COLUMBUS: There are wins and then there are small victories.
Garrick McGee has to settle for the latter.
In his first season as the coach at UAB, he's trying to upgrade a program that has struggled in the transition in the public's perspective from sneaky-good basketball power to big-time football contender. He knows he doesn't have as much talent as No. 16 Ohio State does coming into Saturday's game at Ohio Stadium.
So McGee measures a season in incremental improvements. That's what you do when your team is 0-2 and a 37-point underdog.
"It is really hard, because there is no evidence with the wins and losses," he said of the small steps forward his team has already made despite losing 39-29 to Troy and 49-6 last week at No. 8 South Carolina. "If you really study the film and really study the guys' technique and their understanding of the game plan on offense and defense, the way they communicated, got lined up, recognized formations — they weren't out of control. There are a lot of small wins that happened, especially in the first two and a half quarters of the (last) game."
McGee, a former assistant at Northwestern and Georgia Tech among other stops, is hoping his team can just make a decent showing, maybe score some points, and learn from the experience of performing before 105,000 hostile fans.
The Buckeyes (3-0), on the other hand, will use the game as their final tune-up before embarking on Big Ten play. Their standard is considerably different from UAB's.
Asked if this is a difficult week for his players, finishing up the appetizers against a winless team before getting on to the main course at Michigan State, coach Urban Meyer pointed to all of the things his team was doing wrong.
"If we were playing great, it would be, because you would see a team overlooking a team," Meyer said. "Absolutely not. We're going to play hard because we practiced real hard. You can only control what goes on around here."
That's one thing both coaches share. Both know their teams have to get better.
Despite scoring 41 points a game, the Buckeyes have actually had a wild ride through three home games. They've had trouble getting to quarterbacks at times and have missed a ton of tackles, in addition to being too reliant on quarterback Braxton Miller's legs on offense. Plus, the special teams haven't had any impact on a game so far.
"I told people after the game, when we're good, we're pretty dang good," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "We just have to be good more often."
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is clearly miffed at giving up a series of long-gainers.
"(You can't) make a habit of it every week you make an excuse and you say, 'Man, if you just take away three runs,'" Fickell said a week after the Buckeyes surrendered touchdown carries of 81 and 59 yards and a 36-yard pass play. "You know what? You can't take away those plays. The only way you can is to play better."
Playing better is the mantra for UAB, too. McGee inherited a program with high hopes and low tradition. The Blazers are riding a string of seven straight losing seasons and have just three winning records and only one bowl game since jumping to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1996.
They know what they're up against, at least.
"Playing a Top 10 team was an eye-opener to show us that it's going to be a challenge wherever we go," linebacker Shaq Jones said of the game in Columbia, S.C. "It's not going to be a walk through the park. It's not high school football where you run around and make easy tackles. You have to execute your technique properly in order to succeed."
Miller will put pressure on Jones and his fellow defenders, threatening to either run or pass. It's a dilemma for most teams, particularly so for a young team with little margin for error. If they take a step up to stop the speedy quarterback, he might just pull up and throw to a corps of improving receivers.
Although there's very little chance that UAB could shock the world, all McGee wants to see is improvement as his team attempts to take another step toward respectability.
"We saw that (South Carolina's) players are just like us, which made us try to play at a higher level," he said. "(That) was a big venue. We want to carry our intensity into this week. We are looking forward to a different outcome at the Horseshoe."
Or, maybe, just another small victory.