People in the state of Florida are gearing up for Decision 2018 — oh, and also the upcoming elections.
Yes, for college football fans in the Sunshine State, the big moment of truth this November is focused on this unfolding drama: whether the UCF Knights will remain unbeaten and #ChargeOn to a second straight “New Year’s Six” bowl against a Power 5 conference school with a glossy brand name?
UCF’s attempt to pull off the NY6 double play — becoming the first Group of 5 team to make back-to-back appearances in a signature bowl since the new postseason format began in 2014 — is an important national story. It also will affect McKenzie Milton’s chances of getting an invitation to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Tua Tagovailoa is the runaway favorite for the award, even at this relatively early juncture in the journey to December 8 in New York, but Milton has a strong chance at a ticket to the Downtown Athletic Club if he runs the table for a second straight regular season.
The team which might have the best chance of standing in UCF’s path is the other Florida-based team in the American Athletic Conference. South Florida engaged UCF last year in a classic game — probably a better game than the AAC title game against Memphis a week later. The Bulls played their best game of the year BY FAR… and still lost to the Knights in Orlando.
USF was not unbeaten in that game, but it had only one loss, meaning that a win over UCF would have given USF the AAC East Division title and a chance to win the conference championship against Memphis. In that 2017 season, Charlie Strong led the Bulls through several close shaves. The team didn’t figure to be in UCF’s league, but it played the Knights on even terms and left a memorable imprint on a quality season.
This year, we could very easily see the same scenario. So many stars are aligning… but there is reason to pump the brakes on the optimism surrounding the 2018 edition of USF-UCF, this time in Tampa.
As in 2017, USF is dodging landmines left and right.
Georgia Tech, Illinois, East Carolina, and most recently, Tulsa have all made USF sweat... but the Bulls found the magic needed to pull off a trick and somehow emerge alive from two sets of chains in a box placed underwater. USF is once again the best escape artist in the AAC. The hope in Tampa is that this team can find a higher gear so that it won’t continue to live on the edge.
The problem: After this Saturday, USF and UCF — but especially the Bulls — will not face an easy schedule. USF plays Connecticut Saturday while UCF faces East Carolina. Those are the last layups for these teams. Then, the slate gets much harder.
UCF has to prepare for everyone’s best shot, as anyone would naturally expect for a team with a target on its back. However, UCF gets the biggest non-USF contests of the season at home. USF is the team which could lose more than once before the UCF finale, which would take the air out of the balloon and force the Bulls to be nothing more than a spoiler in late November.
Whereas UCF gets Cincinnati (an unbeaten team) and Temple (unbeaten in AAC play) at home, USF must face those two teams on the road, in what will likely be cold November conditions. USF also has to go to Houston, where the Cougars are not easy to beat. USF had a great team in 2016, but it could not solve Temple in Philadelphia. Winning in the Northeast or Upper Midwest is a challenge for Florida-based teams later in the season.
Just ask Miami how that November trip to Pittsburgh went last autumn.
If the road for USF has been bumpy thus far, it will only get more turbulent for the Bulls, who will have to improve their level of play if they want the UCF game to have conference championship implications for both schools.
This won’t be an easy run for UCF. Cincinnati, Temple and USF are all currently unbeaten in the AAC East. This division has — through half of the season — held up much better than the ravaged and feeble West, in which Navy and Memphis have both taken huge downward tumbles in the standings. Nevertheless, UCF is a more proven team than USF and won’t have to leave the state of Florida for the Temple-Cincinnati-USF trio of games.
What are the odds of another USF-UCF showdown for all the marbles in the AAC? Not great, but this much is clear: The far bigger burden rests with the Bulls than the Knights. Charlie has to make his team Strong-er in order to create a 2018 reunion on par with the 2017 classic that Floridians won’t soon forget.
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