3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Central Florida -10, Over/Under: 62
A major AAC clash is on tap today in Orlando, as the undefeated, Fifteenth-Ranked Central Florida Golden Knights host the South Florida Bulls in a matchup that will for all intents and purposes decide the East Division of the Conference. Now in the final weekend of the Regular Season, South Florida (9-1, 6-1 in AAC) couldn’t ask to be in a better situation, for with a win today they will own the tiebreaker with their instate rivals, and represent the East Division in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, where they’ll look to win their first AAC Championship. In his first season with the Program, Charlie Strong has picked up where his predecessor Willie Taggart left off, guiding the Bulls to a perfect 7-0 start, before finally succumbing to defeat in a narrow 28-24 loss at home to Houston. With both teams trading blows for the majority of the game, it was the hosts that would blink first, settling for a 30-Yard Field Goal to take a 24-21 lead with just 1:46 left on the clock, only to see the Cougars whisk their way down the field and cap the upset with a 20-Yard Touchdown Run. Despite hanging a whopping 467 Total Yards on the visiting side and winning the Turnover Battle to boot (Plus-1), it was the Bulls who were trampled on the ground, allowing 255 Rushing Yards and Three Touchdowns on Forty-Eight Carries, by far and away their worst performance in terms of stopping the run this season. However, Strong’s charges have rebounded nicely, stringing together consecutive victories over AAC bottom-feeders Connecticut (37-20) and Tulsa (27-20) en route to today’s huge contest. In both outings, they stiffened up considerably against the Run, allowing an average of 157.0 Yards on 3.3 Yards per Carry, while their own Ground Game kicked back into high gear, rushing for 217 and 279 Yards after mustering a season-low 137 against Houston. With that said, they’re going to need a much better performance out of Quinton Flowers (53.5%, 209.7 Y/G, 7.6 Y/A, 17 TD, 5 INT), who struggled mightily when asked to throw in the win over Tulsa, completing just 11-of-28 Passes (39.3%) for 142 Yards, Two Touchdowns and an Interception. After thriving under Taggart’s tutelage a year ago, the Senior Quarterback hasn’t enjoyed the smoothest of transitions under Strong, with a number of poor passing performances to his credit; he’s been held below 50.0% Passing on three occasions thus far, with last weekend’s outing proving to be by far and away his worst. However, what this kid has lacked with his arm, he has more than made up with his feet, for you’d be hard-pressed to name ten more dangerous Quarterbacks in the College Football this season in terms of running the football; Flowers has rushed 870 Yards and Nine Touchdowns this campaign, and has been red-hot in his last two games, racking up an average of 125.0 Yards against the Huskies and Golden Hurricane. The Senior has rushed for 100+ Yards on four occasions thus far, which have coincidentally all turned into victories for South Florida. Joining him in the Backfield are a pair of talented Rushers, with D’Ernest Johnson (166 CAR, 715 YDS, 7 TD) and Darius Tice (154 CAR, 860 YDS, 10 TD) each proving to be significant cogs in USF’s Rushing Attack, which has steamrolled opponents to the tune of 276.9 Yards per Game, while gaining a healthy 5.1 Yards per Carry in the process. This was certainly the case in last year’s meeting between these teams, as the Bulls outlasted the Golden Knights in a 48-31 shootout at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa; the hosts churned out a staggering 351 Rushing Yards and Five Touchdowns on Forty-Eight Carries, with the aforementioned Flowers punishing them for 152 Yards and a pair of scores on Twenty Attempts. Since both teams joined the American Athletic Conference back in 2013, they have split their four meetings, with South Florida taking each of the last two with relative ease, outscoring Central Florida a cumulative 92-34, with their last trip to Spectrum Stadium culminating in a 44-3 thrashing of the hosts.
Meanwhile, the magical run continues for Central Florida (10-0, 7-0 in AAC), who with a win tonight would earn their first unbeaten Regular Season in the brief history of the Program that dates back just Twenty-Two Years. It’s really been a remarkable ride for a School that just two years ago endured a winless, 0-12 campaign, with Scott Frost rebuilding them from the ashes in very short order. It’s no wonder that the young Head Coach has attracted the eyes of many higher-profile Programs looking to fill their respective vacancies; the 42-Year Old has gone 16-7 in nearly two seasons with the Golden Knights, ascending to Fourteenth in the AP Poll, which is the second-highest ranking in School History. While many Programs will come calling soon, particularly Nebraska (whom he Quarterbacked from 1995 to 1997), his focus (for the meantime) has remained on taking UCF as far as he can. Winners of ten straight outings, the Knights have overwhelmed the opposition on the strength of the nation’s highest-scoring Offense (48.2 P/G), while racking up a whopping 523.2 Total Yards per Game, including 320.4 Yards through the air, and another 202.8 on the ground. Pulling the strings of the attack is McKenzie Milton, who has improved by leaps and bounds in comparison to last year. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Quarterback in the country that has improved as much as this kid has from last season to this one; Milton completed 57.7% of his Passes for just 198.3 Yards on 5.9 Yards per Attempt, with Ten Touchdowns and Seven Interceptions as a Freshman, but has since connected on a stellar 69.6% of his Attempts for an average of 292.8 Yards on a staggering 10.6 Yards per Attempt, while tossing Twenty-Six Touchdowns to just Five Interceptions. And if that wasn’t enough for you, the youngster has also made plenty of plays with his feet, rushing for 373 Yards and Five more Touchdowns on tap of that. He’s had seven games in which he’s scored at least three Touchdowns, including his latest masterpiece, a 5-TD Performance in UCF’s 45-19 thumping of Temple last Weekend. Despite being short in stature (5-11, 177 lbs), this kid just makes plays, distributing the football judiciously to a wealth of weapons; the Knights have six different players that have totaled at least 200 receiving Yards, with Junior Wideout Tre’Quan Smith chief among them with Forty-Four Receptions for 850 Yards and Eleven Touchdowns, all the while averaging an explosive 19.3 Yards per Catch. Milton will be looking for revenge against South Florida, who really got after him in last year’s 48-31 defeat; the then-Freshman was knocked out of the game after completing 26-of-49 Passes for 225 Yards, with a pair of Interceptions and taking 2.5 Sacks. However, as prolific as the Offense has been, Frost’s charges owe a lot of their success to their opportunistic Defense, which has been a Takeaway Machine in 2017. Granted, we’re sure you’ve heard all about the Turnover Chain paraded around by their more heralded neighbors to the South, but this unit has been able to generate the big plays without any gaudy piece of jewelry. Through ten games, Central Florida has forced a staggering Twenty-Five Turnovers (returning a pair of Interceptions for Touchdowns), parlaying into a very healthy Plus-16 Turnover Differential. As you can imagine, the Takeaways have come in bunches, with at least three occurring in four different contests, including last weekend’s victory over the Owls, where they amassed a season-best five. A dozen different players have registered at least one Takeaway, with Junior Defensive Back Kyle Gibson (42 TKL, 1 FF, 2 FR, 4 INT, 4 PD) benefitting the most, totaling Six Turnovers, including a team-high Four Interceptions. Being able to flip the field of play so frequently has gone a long way towards masking the fact that this group has relinquished a plethora of yardage, allowing a mediocre 373.6 Total Yards per Game. Opponents have managed to enjoy success on the ground against them, rushing for 155.6 Yards on 4.2 Yards per Carry, but have rarely been able to stick with that Gameplan after falling behind. Of all their opposition, conservative teams such as Navy (31-21) and SMU (31-24) came closest to handing them their first defeat, rushing for 248 and 206 Yards respectively, while controlling Time of Possession and limiting the volume of possessions that UCF could get.