The UCF Knights, who were winless just two seasons ago, are major college football’s only unbeaten team. Later today, UCF is making an appearance in a “New Year’s Six Bowl” for the second time as the best of the non-Power Five conference teams. But, this time they are going for the history books.
No. 7 Auburn (10-3) will look to spoil the Knights bid for a perfect 13-0 year. The Tigers, whose
national championship hopes were dashed with a 28-7 loss in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia on Dec. 2, are capping off a successful season of their own.
Here are three story-lines to follow in the New Year’s Day matchup:
1) Will UCF’s offense continue to roll against Auburn’s Top 10 defense?
UCF comes into the Peach Bowl as the nation’s top scoring team at 49.4 points per game, while Auburn is ranked ninth defensively at 17.3 points. QB McKenzie Milton, the AAC Offensive Player of the Year, and teammates are seventh in passing (339 ypg) and 34th in rushing (202 ypg). The Knights have never scored fewer than 31 this season, while the Tigers have never allowed more than 28 points.
There’s no question that UCF’s offense has been explosive, but Auburn will be the stiffest defense they’ve faced yet. Auburn’s 17th against the pass (183 ypg allowed) and 32nd against the run (135 ypg). We wrote previously that the Knights would not be afraid of Auburn. Now, let’s see that play out.
2) UCF’s defense needs to step it up
In their last two games against South Florida and Memphis, the Knights gave up 42 and 55 points. That amounted to 653 and 753 yards, respectively. UCF’s defense can’t afford to continue that trend against the Tigers. One of their biggest threats will be Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson, who was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
Johnson has carried the load for the Tigers with 286 touches for 1,508 total yards and 19 touchdowns. UCF’s 67th-ranked rushing defense has been unimpressive, allowing more than 165 ground yards per game.
3) Scott Frost will coach his final game for the Knights
UCF won the American Athletic Conference title with a thrilling 62-55, double-overtime shootout against Memphis on Dec. 2 in what appeared to be third-year head coach Scott Frost’s final game.
Shortly after the championship win, Frost resigned to become Nebraska’s next head coach. However, he’s following through with his word to lead the Knights through the Peach Bowl.
Frost, who is taking his entire staff to Lincoln after the Jan. 1 bowl game, addressed those who believe the outgoing staff isn’t fully committed to UCF’s preparation.
“I know the meaning of the word ‘wearing two hats’ now,” Frost said to the media last week. “They’re both full-time jobs. We’re doing absolutely everything we can to give these guys the best chance that they have. It’s not easy, but I appreciate people on both sides allowing us to do this. … It has been difficult, getting on a plane and flying somewhere and getting back here. It’s not ideal for me, to be honest with you, but it’s the right thing to do and it’s the best thing to do for these young men that have played for us.”
Former Missouri assistant Josh Heupel, who was named UCF’s head coach quickly after Frost’s resignation, is expected to observe his team from the press box for the majority of the game.
Who can identify with UCF lack of respect? Cincinnati, that’s who
This Saturday, Brian Kelly will coach away from home, in a professional sports stadium, in the November cold of a northern city, pursuing a national championship against a school which was formerly in the Big East Conference.
These details pertain to Kelly in 2018. He will coach in New York’s Yankee Stadium, leading Notre Dame against Syracuse, formerly a member of the Big East, as the Fighting Irish try to keep their national title dreams alive.
These details also pertain to Kelly nine years ago at this time of year. In 2009, near the end of his team’s season, he coached in the home of the Steelers, Heinz Field, against Pittsburgh, which is also a former member of the Big East. The team Kelly coached on that late-November day was Cincinnati. The Bearcats, if you recall, were chasing their own national championship dream.
How fitting it is, then, that while Kelly tries to hunt down an elusive national title with the Fighting Irish, his former team stands in the way of UCF as the Knights make their own attempt to win a national title.
Are UCF’s playoff hopes realistic? No… but it is well worth remembering that the Colley Matrix — one of the formulas used in the Bowl Championship Series rankings — did rate the Knights as national champions last year after the playoff and the bowl games, which is precisely why that national championship debate contained at least a measure of legitimacy, no matter what the national (read: SEC) pundits said. As long as other unbeaten teams keep losing, UCF and its fans will hold out some hope that even if they don’t make the playoff, they might replicate the Colley Matrix magic of last year.
They will throw another party. No one will stop them. They will enjoy it… IF they can produce another unbeaten season.
UCF might get locked outside the candy store… but it can still create its own sweets, becoming an independent confectioner.
Does this sound familiar? It was almost the situation Brian Kelly’s 2009 Cincinnati team encountered. It fell one game short.
When the 2018 UCF team takes the field against Cincinnati on Saturday, it will be looking at a football school which once carried the frustrations UCF shoulders today.
The 2009 Cincinnati team played in the Big East, whose status did not exist on par with the current Power 5 conferences — SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 — but which enjoyed more stature than the current American Athletic Conference. The Big East’s high-profile bowl victories in the years preceding 2009 — West Virginia over Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, Louisville over Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl, West Virginia over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl — lifted the Big East’s profile.
It was almost enough to get Cincinnati to the 2009 season’s BCS National Championship Game… but not quite.
Cincinnati did what UCF did last year, and is trying to duplicate in 2018: go unbeaten through the regular season. The Bearcats came from behind to win their late-November pressure cooker in Pittsburgh and preserve their perfect slate. They then waited to see if they would get the one big break needed to play Alabama for the whole ball of wax in Pasadena, California.
They came one second from achieving that goal.
A Texas pass from quarterback Colt McCoy — in the final moments of the Big 12 Championship Game against Nebraska — hit a railing in Cowboys Stadium with one second left in regulation. Had that pass not hit the railing, instead hitting the ground after diving a few more feet, Cincinnati likely would have been in the national title game.
In the final 2009 regular-season BCS standings, Texas — due to its escape against Nebraska — finished second and earned its date with Bama in California. Cincinnati finished third, TCU fourth, and Boise State sixth.
Cincinnati (Big East), TCU (Mountain West), and Boise State (Western Athletic) were all unbeaten… and all were left out of the national championship game. After the bowls, Boise State was the only team other than Alabama which still had a perfect record. The Broncos ended up in the position 2017 UCF inhabited when the final game had been played in January. However, Cincinnati was the team which came closest to qualifying for the national championship-producing main event on the first weekend of December… without getting inside the door. UCF and Ohio State, in their own ways and on their own separate levels, felt that same sting when Alabama was voted in by the committee last year as the No. 4 playoff seed and Clemson’s opponent in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.
The one big difference between 2009 Cincinnati and 2017 UCF — and, perhaps, 2018 UCF if the Knights once again complete a “perfecto” — is that whereas UCF finished the job in its bowl game against Auburn, Cincy was dismantled by another SEC team. The Bearcats were hammered by Florida in the 2010 Sugar Bowl, which was Tim Tebow’s final game as a college football player. Cincinnati was denied a chance to play a postseason game with national championship stakes, but the Bearcats couldn’t throw a perfect-season party in January. UCF took that final step, and the Knights hope to do that again this year.
Yes, it is entirely fitting that Cincinnati is UCF’s opponent this Saturday, with College GameDay in Orlando and the eyes of the nation riveted to UCF’s plight. Brian Kelly might still be chasing a national title with Notre Dame, but Kelly’s first big run at gridiron glory came nine years ago with the program UCF can fully relate to in the present day.
The 2009 Bearcats wish there was a four-team playoff. The 2017 and 2018 Knights wish the AAC of today had the Big East’s level of stature in 2009.
All three teams would have wanted to play Alabama… but two never got the chance, and the 2018 Knights probably won’t receive the same opportunity, either.
Cincinnati then, UCF now. The past and present are brought together this week in Orlando, with College GameDay on hand to magnify a moment which is hardly new or unheard of in 21st century college football.
Demand building to attend UCF prime time match-up with Cincinnati
As the anticipation continues to build towards this weekend in Orlando and UCF being featured on national television against Cincinnati, so too does the demand for tickets.
Spectrum Stadium, the home of the Knights seats just over 45,000 fans and it will be “packed to the gills” for the primetime match-up with the 9-0 Knights against the 9 – 1 Bearcats. It’s arguably the biggest regular-season game in UCF history, when you take into account all that’s going into it.
Consider that ESPN will bring their “College GameDay” four hour live pregame show to Orlando Saturday and then will show the game nationally with Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Maria Taylor on the call.
Consider also that UCF is putting their 22-game win streak on the line which is the longest in the country. Further consider, that the nights are attempting to lock up a spot in the American Conference Championship game with a victory and that it would be their biggest regular-season win of 2018.
Then, taking all of that into account, you can understand why the demand is so high for this showdown. The school announced on Tuesday afternoon that they were making more tickets available in the standing areas:
JUST IN: very limited amount of standing-room-only tickets have made available for Saturday!
Call 407-823-1000 & press option 1 pic.twitter.com/yB3EDcK9WP
— UCF Knights (@UCFKnights) November 13, 2018
UCF has not done that for a home game this season and the last time they did it was in their Black Friday Showdown with rival USF a year ago, which completed a perfect 11 – 0 regular season.
That game, by the way, was shown nationally on ABC that Friday afternoon and was one of the highest rated non Primetime football games in years for the network.
Further, we checked on StubHub online Tuesday afternoon to see what kind of demand there is. At the time we checked: the lowest price ticket was in the upper level of the stadium for $73 while the lower level tickets were ranging between 250 and $400 depending on if you had access to the club or suite areas.
So there is no question, that there is demand for this match-up between UCF and Cincy.
Now, the question becomes will the Knights be able to focus and cut through all of the hype and build-up to showcase themselves to the College Football World and specifically the CFP selection committee in a prime time game?
ESPN announces “College Gameday” coming for UCF-Cincinnati
They’re comin’ — to our cit-taaaaaay!
ESPN College GameDay — whose first road trip was connected to another team in the state of Florida, 25 years ago — will pay a visit to UCF. Kirk Herbstreit was part of the announcement on social media:
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) November 11, 2018
The visit makes sense on a weekend in which the amount of high-profile games is sparse: UCF-Cincinnati joins Notre Dame-Syracuse and Iowa State-Texas as the only especially appetizing matchups. ND-Syracuse is being played in a baseball stadium in very cold weather. Iowa State-Texas is on the Longhorn Network. UCF deserved this spotlight, and it will now receive it.
You know what’s coming: The GameDay crew will talk about UCF’s place in the College Football Playoff race, and about the need for college football to give the Group of 5 champion a spot in the playoff. You also know that McKenzie Milton will get some Heisman publicity.
This visit heightens the tensions surrounding UCF’s journey to a second consecutive unbeaten regular season. It raises the stakes for this game against Cincinnati, the one team with an especially legitimate chance of overtaking UCF in the AAC East Division now that South Florida has turned into a pumpkin, as many people suspected it would. (Temple is still alive in the East race, but it lost to UCF head to head and therefore has a narrow path to a possible division title.)
It is entirely understandable for UCF fans to get very emotional and anxious about the playoff debate — ESPN and GameDay will unavoidably intensify that larger theater of discussion and argument. Yet, with the spotlight falling on the Knights in a new and profound way, they must shut out the noise and do the one thing which exists in their power to achieve: WIN.
That’s it. WIN. Just win, baby.
Would it be awesome if Milton throws for 500 yards and six touchdowns?
Would it be fantastic if UCF crushes Cincy by 40 points?
Of course… but this isn’t about padding a stat sheet. This isn’t about “We Want Bama!”
This is about continuing to be a bunch of winners… which UCF has unfailingly managed to sustain for nearly two full seasons.
Just win. Just lock up the AAC East. Secure the spot in the AAC title game. Then win that game. Prevent Utah State from wresting away the Group of 5 championship. Just get another high-end New Year’s Six bowl against an SEC team. Just win that game.
Everyone else in the United States will debate and argue and go mad, one way or the other.
UCF’s best revenge — its only revenge — is to keep that loss column at zero.
Let all the other chips fall where they may… and let ESPN College GameDay marvel at a team which keeps the “O” in Orlando, while adding to those wins in the “W” column.
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