The UCF Knights are repeatedly winning this season. They are repeatedly thriving. Last year, in the AAC Championship Game against the Memphis Tigers, they repeatedly moved the ball and scored in a game which featured 117 points and nearly 1,500 yards, 965 in the air. Repetition has become central to UCF’s identity. Teams keep trying to take down this juggernaut, but the Knights “Charge On!” and keep rolling.
Sustaining excellence is a beast of a process — in any sport, yes, but especially in college football.
Look at how quickly TCU has tumbled from a place of national significance in a few short weeks. Look at how this season has quickly spun sideways for the Auburn team UCF outclassed in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day. Success can and does vanish in a heartbeat. UCF has refused to cede its place as the Group of Five favorite, but that process of repetition must continue on Saturday against Memphis in a rematch of that AAC firefight in Orlando last December.
Much as a team cannot sit on a lead until it has driven the final dagger into the opponent, the Knights can’t rely on the past to assume they can defeat opponents with ordinary effort and average performances. The focus on maintaining a high level of quality must remain intact.
On paper, this match-up — like any remaining AAC game for UCF in 2018 — appears lopsided. There is no team in The American which seems capable of standing in the ring with UCF and throwing punches for 60 minutes. The AAC West — where Memphis resides — is noticeably weaker than in previous seasons.
Memphis joins Navy and Houston as programs which have won West Division titles but are now stumbling in the darkness, searching for the magic they once had. Tulane crushed Memphis a few weeks ago, but that was not part of a dramatic turnaround for the Green Wave. Tulane has generally struggled this season; Memphis was the outlier on the slate.
That detail sheds light on the challenge facing UCF in Week 7. Memphis — having been kicked to the curb by Tulane — isn’t nearly as good as it was last year, when it very nearly won the AAC and had Riley Ferguson pitching the ball to stud receiver Anthony Miller. Those two players are gone, and as a result, these Tigers can be tamed so much more easily in 2018 compared to 2017.
Yet, much as Memphis was a game Tulane circled in red all offseason and badly wanted to win, you know — without any doubt — that Memphis did the same to this UCF game. This is Memphis’ Super Bowl in 2018, the game the Tigers want to win more than any other. This is the game in which coach Mike Norvell will pull out all the stops and reach for every trick in the grab bag of ball plays to flummox UCF’s defense.
This is the game great college football teams handle, the game in which a wounded underdog goes all in at the poker table to win the one contest which possesses supreme emotional value and resonance. Memphis will probably not play as hard or show as much resourcefulness the rest of the season as it will against UCF.
McKenzie Milton — pronounced as being physically “fine” by head coach Josh Heupel after an injury scare in Week 6 — has to get back in the saddle and silence a frenzied crowd at the Liberty Bowl stadium. If Milton wants an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony as a finalist this December, a masterclass on ABC television in a rematch of a 2017 AAC classic — one which propelled the Knights into the Peach Bowl and the national spotlight — will provide substantial leverage.
That, however, is an individual goal. If Milton plays at or near the ceiling of his capabilities, the most important thing about Saturday’s game is that it will reaffirm UCF’s supremacy — and its sense of control — in the AAC, which could ripple through not just the second half of this season, but bear fruit into 2019.
Repetition — it is what athletes and the teams they play for must do in order to affirm greatness. Handling the kind of challenge Memphis poses on Saturday will offer one more indication that UCF is on its way to a New Year’s Six bowl showcase… but no one on the Knights can take that for granted.
College football wasn’t built that way, and it’s not going to change, either. UCF has to win an opponent’s Super Bowl once again.
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