For the second time in the new iteration of the USFL, two teams will vie for the championship tonight as the Pittsburgh Maulers take on the Birmingham Stallions.
The reigning champions, Skip Holtz’s Birmingham Stallions, finished 9-1 last year and 8-2 this year. The Pittsburgh Maulers were only able to secure one victory last year, but this year recruited veteran NFL defensive coordinator Ray Horton, switched from their previous orange and purple colour scheme to the classic Pittsburgh black and yellow, and ended 4-6, despite starting 2-6.
In a surprising opening round of the playoffs, the Maulers defeated the Michigan Panthers 31-27. Nobody was prepared for that chaotic, high scoring game which, remarkably, even required overtime. The shocks came in a different form in the second game as the Stallions humiliated the New Orleans Breakers 47-22. As Birmingham led New Orleans, 40-7, going into the fourth quarter, the game wasn’t ever close.
Today’s matchup is truly is your prototypical David vs. Goliath story. The reigning champion, Stallions, are the obvious favourite, having played competent, winning football all season. With the Maulers only finding their feet in small pockets throughout the year – and, especially, last weekend – do they stand a chance at becoming USFL Champions?
Pittsburgh Maulers vs. Birmingham Stallions
Saturday June 24th – 1am BST / 8pm ET
Sky Sports (UK) / NBC (US)
Channelling my inner nineties child and quoting the man whom a majority owner in the USFL was named after, Fox Mulder, “I want to believe.” Alright, I’m making up the FOX being named after Mulder stuff but I’m not making up the fact that this might not be the walkover that most are predicting for the Birmingham Stallions. They key to any potential Maulers victory? Their defense.
The Maulers Ray Horton coached unit led the USFL (jointly with the New Orleans Breakers) during the regular season with an average of 17 points allowed per game. Pittsburgh also allowed the least passing yards per game and were second in the league in rushing yards conceded, as well as securing the most interceptions all season with 13. In their lone meeting during the 2023 season, the Stallions narrowly prevailed over the Maulers, 24-20. Birmingham actually trailed Pittsburgh 12-10 going into the fourth quarter but came out on top by outscoring them 14-8. Williams scored the lone Maulers touchdown with a 34-yard run, while McGough passed for 157 yards, two scores overall, and two interceptions. Chris Blewitt with a long of 46 and was 4-for-4 on field goals.
The key then, as it will be in the championship game, will be Alex McGough. With his name already written into the league MVP slot, at least with a thick pencil, McGough has excelled this season and, in a just world, will be a legitimate backup option for any number of NFL teams next season. Last week, the Stallions quarterback ran for 84 yards and a touchdown, in addition to completing 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns through the air. How McGough performs against this defense will ultimately decide this game. Fundamentally, he will just have to outscore the Maulers offensive unit, led by Troy Williams. We’ve seen good numbers from Williams in recent weeks, hooking up with his top target, Isiah Hennie, on an increasingly consistent basis but they’ll have to do that against a Stallions defense who themselves saw a level of resurgence last week.
Should the Pittsburgh Maulers win, it will be because they played old school, sensible football on offense and grounded it out but I cannot look past the Birmingham Stallions in this one.
Bookies Prediction: Stallions (-7)
Our Prediction: Stallions
Will you be watching the 2023 USFL Championship? Who do you have your money on? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.