FAYETTEVILLE — Former Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was supposed to be returning as Alabama-Birmingham’s head coach this week.

FAYETTEVILLE — Former Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was supposed to be returning as Alabama-Birmingham’s head coach this week.


It was the obvious attraction when Arkansas and UAB agreed to play a nonconference game in Razorback Stadium. In fact, UAB athletic director Brian Mackin told AL.com at the time it would be a "great homecoming" for McGee.


McGee won’t be in town when Arkansas (3-4, 0-4 in SEC) plays UAB (4-3, 2-2 in Conference-USA) on Saturday at 11 a.m. He left last winter, stepping down to rejoin former Razorback coach Bobby Petrino as Louisville’s offensive coordinator. But his former team — which won five games in McGee’s two seasons — is enjoying success without him.


UAB will get another crack at an SEC opponent when it meets the Razorbacks for the first time. First-year coach Bill Clark has led the Blazers out of last year’s 2-10 misery, putting UAB in position to enjoy its first winning season since 2004.


"Our guys have competed their tails off," Clark said. "That’s the thing I get compliments on from everybody is how hard our guys play. … That’s kind of the guarantee we’re trying to give every week that consistently we’re going to play hard. And that’s what we’ve got to do this week against a really good opponent."


The Blazers would take a big step toward securing that winning record with an upset at Arkansas. Impossible? Consider this: UAB put up a fight during the 47-34 loss at Mississippi State on Sept. 6. The Bulldogs have since climbed to the top of the Associated Press poll, while UAB continues to take steps under Clark.


UAB is 2-21 against SEC opponents in school history. It’s last win came against Mississippi State in 2004. But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the Blazers proved they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with an SEC team earlier this season.


"UAB has done some really good things, obviously played a heck of a ballgame against Mississippi State," Bielema said. "Coach Clark has done an outstanding job wherever he’s been. I think the up-tempo offense at times has shown to be very effective. They put up a lot of points against Mississippi State. … Defensively they’re pretty opportunistic and have a lot of really good players."


UAB’s defense struggled the most under McGee last season. The Blazers ranked 119th in the nation in scoring defense (43.8 points a game) and 116th in total defense (497.8 yards). UAB allowed 50 or more points six times.


The Blazers are allowing 28.4 points, which ranks 83rd in the NCAA, through seven games in 2014. They’re also 63rd in total defense (394.9). Mississippi State came closest to topping the 50-point mark, collecting 47 in its win.


"Our defense, I think, is getting better," Clark said. "Now, I hope it shows up this week. That’s one of our big things. We want to be able to rely on our defense each week. … That’s something we’re working on. We’ve got a ways to go."


UAB will need a big effort against the Razorbacks, who have beaten nonconference opponents with its big offensive line and powerful ground game. Their performance could be even more important with injury issues on offense.


Starting quarterback Cody Clements was "banged up" in the loss at Middle Tennessee and Clark said his status for the Arkansas game was unknown. His throwing arm was in a sling during Monday’s practice, according to AL.com, leaving redshirt freshman Jeremiah Briscoe working with the offense.


"That’s a good question," Clark said when asked if he thought Clements was going to play against the Hogs. "We don’t know. We’ll see what happens this week and see where he’s at. Jeremiah and those other guys will be ready if he’s not."


Clements has completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 1,540 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Briscoe has been inconsistent in his playing time this season. He threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State, but went 2 for 5 for 8 yards and two interceptions against FIU.


The Blazers could be without one of their top receivers as well. J.J. Nelson, who has a team-high 446 receiving yards and returns kicks and punts, didn’t participate in Monday’s practice, according to AL.com. He was injured late in the loss, although Clark said the 5-foot-11, 160-pound receiver was "good. Just a little sore."


UAB is confident it has depth at receiver with Kennard Backman (25 catches, 291 yards, three touchdowns), former Razorback Maudrecus Humphrey (18 catches, 247 yards), Josh Magee (10 catches, 249 yards, two touchdowns) and Jamari Staples (seven catches, 169 yards, touchdown) contributing this season. Staples returned from an early-season injury to catch four passes for 83 yards and a touchdown last week.


"It’s no question that we’re gonna be ready to go come Saturday," Humphrey, who was dismissed from the Razorbacks in 2012 along with Marquel Wade and Andrew Peterson after an offseason arrest on felony burglary charges, told AL.com. "We’re going to put in a lot of good work this week, take a lot of shots in practice and get more comfortable with Briscoe throwing us the ball in the game so we’ll be ready."


UAB is confident it can compete after doubling the win total under McGee last season. It could equal the two-year win total with an upset at Arkansas on Saturday.


"This is a nonconference game, but it’s a game we want to win," Clark said. "It’s the same thing we said about Mississippi State. We’re going down there to compete our butts off."