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UCF Knights

UCF comparing to Bama? Not as complicated as you think

Matt Zemek

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In a more perfect world, UCF and Alabama would have met in a playoff quarterfinal last year to decide a semifinal berth. In a college football postseason with playoff berths for the Power Five conference champions, the Group of Five champion, and two at-large or wild card teams — the field of eight teams which might become the sport’s new reality a decade from now, when the current playoff contract expires — UCF and Alabama surely would have been placed in the quarterfinals in a David-versus-Goliath confrontation.

As it was, Alabama won the College Football Playoff. UCF made its own claim to the 2017 national championship of college football. Websites and radio stations and television networks got a lot of mileage out of the UCF-Alabama public relations battle. The two schools are both prominent in the minds of college football fans and commentators these days.

One month into the 2018 season, they are linked in another way — a way you might not have thought about.

What could that possibly be, you ask? It is not as complicated as you might think.

Look around at the college football landscape. This year has a distinct “Cavs versus Warriors” feel, does it not?

Now that Ohio State has won at Penn State, and now that Wisconsin and Iowa have both lost in the Big Ten West, who but the Buckeyes has a realistic chance of winning the Big Ten Conference and going to the College Football Playoff?

With Miami and Virginia Tech having already lost, who but the Clemson Tigers has any real chance of winning the ACC and representing that league in the playoff?

TCU has already lost twice. Oklahoma State has already lost. Texas has already lost. With the possible exception of West Virginia, Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team with realistic national championship aspirations… and we haven’t yet played a game in October.

Across the country, conferences are balanced but weak in their middle tiers and have one team which stands above the rest.

This is where UCF and Alabama are very clearly linked.

Look at the AAC. Memphis has lost twice, and so has Navy. Houston doesn’t look particularly convincing, either. South Florida might be unbeaten, but the Bulls barely beat Illinois and East Carolina. They were outplayed most of the day by Georgia Tech before rallying late.

This is UCF’s world. There is no clear-cut No. 2 contender.. because there isn’t really ANY No. 2 contender to the Knights in the AAC UCF isn’t even sweating the Group of Five race. Boise State, Troy, North Texas, San Diego State, Fresno State — the really big threats outside the AAC — have all stumbled. UCF stands several notches above the competition in a context much larger than its own conference.

Speaking of conferences, though, look at the SEC. Georgia is a good team, but the Bulldogs have not looked close to the team which nearly won last year’s national title. Georgia is not in the same zip code as Alabama. The Crimson Tide are unleashing a Crimson flood of points this season, with Tua Tagovailoa making the sport of football look easy. Georgia is not in Alabama’s league — not through five games The SEC is Bama and then everyone else.

You can see, then, how UCF and Alabama are connected. They are both the undisputed leaders in their main pursuits — for conference championships on a smaller level and for playoff (Bama) and New Year’s Six bowl berths (UCF) on a larger national scale. This is a debatable point, but certainly a reasonable one as well:

The degree to which UCF towers over the AAC is matched by the degree to which Alabama towers over the SEC. Similarly, the degree to which UCF leads the Group of Five’s NY6 bowl derby is matched by the extent to which Alabama is in pole position to play for and win the national title. Any outcome other than UCF winning the Group of Five would be a significant surprise at this point. Any outcome other than Alabama winning the national championship would be a substantial plot twist at this early stage of the season.

UCF and Alabama are linked this year… just not in the way you might have expected. These programs do inhabit different worlds and live in different dimensions of stature and national importance. Naturally, they come from opposite sides of the tracks — one (Bama) from royal bloodlines and dynastic power, the other (UCF) from a small, hardscrabble upbringing in which it had to work very long and hard for every small scrap of income and recognition.

Yet, despite their differences, they stand in similar positions relative to the competition they must fend off to make their 2018 seasons a success.

UCF and Bama are entirely different in many ways, but in a few noticeable respects, they are very much the same this year.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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UCF Knights

UCF’s handling of McKenzie Milton situation raises many questions

Matt Zemek

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James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night, the team at Florida Football Insiders spotted a story which didn’t get much attention when it broke just after 7 p.m. Eastern time in Greenville, North Carolina. That story has since been updated with fresh details, since it originally broke.

The story, in short: McKenzie Milton –– leader of an unbeaten team in 2017, Heisman Trophy candidate, and the best Group of Five offensive player in college football — was held out of competition in the UCF Knights’ game against the East Carolina Pirates. As the linked story from FFI indicated, UCF and head coach Josh Heupel did not furnish ESPN2 play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins with any information or context which would have suggested that Milton was not going to play.

More particularly, Heupel and UCF did not give ESPN — via Mowins and color commentator Anthony Becht — any details which would have explained WHY Milton might not have played.

Was this an injury? Was this a disciplinary move? Neither the school nor the head coach — the public face of the program — were forthcoming.

Instead, the Knights went with inexperienced sophomore QB Darriel Mack (above) and he played solidly in what turned out to be an easy win.

Let’s be clear at the outset: This is not appalling behavior. This is not worthy of the strongest possible condemnation. Compared to everything which happens in college sports and in the larger theater of billion-dollar businesses, this is a relatively minor issue as a reflection of human conduct. Not every issue can be a 10 on an outrage scale of 1 to 10.

The real outrage should be saved for the most important topics, the ones with the biggest impact on human lives. This does not remotely approach a 10, or even an 8.5 or a 7. Let’s not make it bigger than it is.

However, even if a story is not a “stop the presses” bombshell or a matter of extreme and urgent importance, it can still matter to a lot of people. It can still be worth monitoring so that it is handled better the next time. It can still be acknowledged that what happened with UCF, Milton and ESPN Saturday night is worth addressing and could influence both the UCF program and the college football industry in the near future.

That last point is what merits attention here, even as we try to gain more of an understanding of why UCF and Heupel did what they did, which remains unclear at press time.

We at FFI are not going to jump the gun and PRESUME we know why UCF and Heupel did what they did. We will wait for them to have their say in the course of time. Withering judgments of UCF won’t be found here.

Let us simply say, however, that this kind of story has real-world implications on a number of levels. I will focus on two of them.

First, how will this affect Milton’s Heisman chances? On the raw merits, one would think Milton deserves to be a Heisman finalist — UCF fans would obviously agree, but I think a lot of national observers would agree as well. However, ESPN controls so much of the college football world, and more precisely, who gets shown on TV and how teams get covered on TV. Because of ESPN’s centrality in the college football media universe, I can very easily imagine that after being snubbed by UCF and Heupel, ESPN could downplay Milton’s Heisman candidacy and pump up other players in Power Five conferences.

It would not be the first time something such as this has happened. It will not be the last, either. UCF and Heupel obviously had their reasons (and again, we will know more about them shortly after this article is published), but did those reasons outweigh the public relations costs of leaving ESPN broadcasters unequipped to speak to the situation enfolding Milton on Saturday against East Carolina?

Only time will tell, but that is now a plot point in the Heisman race, like it or not, and if Milton doesn’t get a ticket to New York in December, a lot of people will look at this night as a moment which hurt Milton’s candidacy.

The second point is much bigger than the 2018 Heisman race.

You are very likely aware that sports betting — after a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year — is able to become legalized by various states if they so choose. Some states have already legalized sports betting, and others are likely to do so in the coming months.

You don’t need to guess where this is going: If sports betting becomes more pervasively legal, schools and coaches won’t be able to do what NHL coaches and organizations did so often in playoff games, saying a player had an “upper-body injury” or something else which was unspecific to the point of absurdity. The more sports betting is legal in American states and territories, the more it will be required for schools to publicly disclose injury or discipline-based information on important athletes.

That matter still hasn’t been resolved, though, which gave UCF the ability — this time, this year, this weekend — to keep quiet.

Whether you agree with UCF or not, the days in which this kind of practice will be allowed are numbered. There is a very good chance this kind of approach won’t be possible in 2019.

In the meantime, we all have questions. We will see what kind of answers we get in the next 24 to 48 hours.

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UCF Knights

UCF QB McKenzie Milton benched at start of game Saturday night

Florida Football Insiders

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Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

As the UCF Knights began their bid to win a 20th consecutive game on Saturday night at East Carolina, there was a humongous absence out on the field.

Junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, the premier player in the American Athletic Conference and the unquestioned leader of the Knights, was benched at the beginning of the contest for a yet to be explained reason.

The Knights instead started sophomore Darriel Mack Jr., who had thrown only nine passes the entire season. Mack immediately began the game with three struggling drives where UCF had to punt the football in a scoreless battle.

As this item in the Orlando Sentinel details, Milton did suffer a slight ankle injury while scoring his fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown in the 31 – 30 win over Memphis. He told reporters on Monday that the ankle was sore, but neither, UCF Coach Josh Heupel nor Milton ever suggested that he might not be able to play in the game with the Pirates in prime time.

Even ESPN broadcasters Beth Mowins and Anthony Becht were surprised when Mack came out on the field instead of Milton. Mowins told the audience during the opening drive that UCF sports information had come into their booth to tell them that it was simply a coach’s decision not to play Milton. And, that there was not a timetable on, if Milton would play in the game or not.

Mowins further added that, when the ESPN broadcasters met with Heupel and the UCF coaches Friday night, there was no mention of Milton being benched or being injured.

So the mystery deepens as to why he’s not playing at the beginning of the game.

After ECU took a 3-0 lead and UCF came out for their third possession without Milton, ESPN sideline reporter Rocky Boiman reported that even the UCF radio sideline reporter and other team broadcasters had not been told what was going on-why Milton was not playing?

Milton warmed up normally in full uniform, warmed up on the sideline while the first quarter was unfolding. And continued to watch with his helmet on standing near Heupel, as the first quarter unfolded. It only added to the uncertainty.

Mack later put together four scoring drives in the first half, as UCF built a 20-3 lead in Milton’s absence. Third string QB Quadry Jones threw a long 42 yard TD pass to Adrian Killins on a trick play for a touchdown, and Mack capped another drive late in the first half with a seven yard scoring run to give the Knights some breathing room.

Heupel told ESPN at halftime, “coaches decision. we just didn’t think he (Milton) could go,” inferring that perhaps it was the ankle injury.

However, that doesn’t explain why Milton was in uniform, with his helmet on and even warming up on the sideline, while East Carolina was on offense during a possession early in the first quarter. Unless, that was completely to deek everyone, including the Pirates.

Milton spent the second half with a baseball cap on instead of his helmet.

Milton was named the American Conference offensive player of the week for the 4th time already this season after the Memphis game. He is benching snap a streak of 27 consecutive starts dating back to the 2016 regular season. He currently has 16 passing TDs and six more on the ground.

Further, Milton led the knights to their 13 and 0 perfect season a year ago, and the first six wins of this year. He is currently a Heisman trophy finalist candidate with his play so far in the first six games of this season.

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UCF Knights

UCF looking for 20 wins in row leads our Saturday college primer

Florida Football Insiders

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Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now well into the season and things are starting to take shape in this college football season. And one team in the state, UCF, remains perfect. Can they keep it up and what happens to two other Florida schools hosting games Saturday?

Here goes:

FSU vs. Wake Forest  3:30 p.m.

The Noles have had a tough and unusual two weeks. First, after being up 27 – 7 on rival Miami in the third quarter two Saturdays ago, they watched in horror, as the Hurricanes roared back with 21 unanswered points and sneak out a 28 – 27 comeback win. As if the loss wasn’t tough enough to deal with, the Florida State program, along with much of the panhandle of Florida, had to deal with the actual Hurricane Michael.

That displaced the Seminoles staff and players for several days during their bye week and the beginning of this week. Now, the focus turns back to the field and the home game that is very winnable. While Wake Forest is 3-3, they have been beaten decisively recently by Notre Dame and Clemson in their last two games.

Now let’s see if FSU can continue that trend by getting quarterback Deondre Francois and their ground game led by Cam Akers rolling early in this one.

UCF at East Carolina 7 p.m.

It was a heart-stopping come back on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Memphis last week for the Knights. Down by 13 points in the second half UCF pulled out a gutsy 4th and 1 that turned into a 71-yard touchdown and flipped the game in their favor for good.

McKenzie Milton led the go ahead touchdown drive and took it in himself for the winning points in the 31 – 30 victory. Milton was named the AAC player of the week for the 4th time already this year on Monday.

East Carolina has had an up-and-down season that includes a win over North Carolina early in the year, but they have recently been blasted by Temple and Houston by a combined score of 91 – 26.

A victory by UCF will make it an even 20 consecutive wins since the start of last year. Look for Josh Heupel’s team to take control early in this one.

USF versus UConn 7 p.m.

The epitome of living on the edge is the USF Bulls. Back at home for a Saturday night conference tilt with Connecticut, USF barely survived with a 15 points second-half comeback last Friday Night in Tulsa.

As our Matt Zemek wrote, this is the last exhale-type game for the Bulls against a lesser opponent before a tough stretch run that will include Houston Temple and eventually UCF.

Will quarterback Blake Barnett and running back Jordan Cronkrite have an easy night of it in Tampa? Cronkrite has four consecutive one hundred-yard games and has been USF most consistent offensive weapon.

Don’t look for much resistance from the Huskies who have been beaten by at least 30 points in each of their last three games with Syracuse, Cincinnati and Memphis.

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