8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Central Florida -4, Over/Under: 60.5
Division rivals meet tonight as the No. 18 Central Florida Knights travel to Nippert Stadium to face the Cincinnati Bearcats in what figures to be a crucial encounter that will shape the American Athletic Conference moving forward. For the third consecutive season, Central Florida (3-1, 1-0 in AAC) are off to a prolific start, carrying the considerable momentum of a young program that has won twenty-eight games since 2017. Indeed, the Knights have made a lot of noise over the past few years, winning the league on both occasions, prompting them to openly poke and prod the CFP Selection Committee, which has continued to keep them out of the Playoff (for obvious reasons, of course). Seriously, folks, Josh Heupel’s charges have been very impressive, but they would need to compete in a tougher conference in order to be taken more seriously by the Committee. However, that’s in no way intended to be disrespectful to the second-year Head Coach and his charges, who have firmly established themselves as a powerhouse outside of the Power-5. Through four games thus far, UCF has averaged 49.0 Points per Game (6th Overall) on 568.6 Total Yards, including 336.0 Yards through the air, and another 232.6 Yards on the ground. Making their recent string of performances all the more impressive is the fact that they’ve been doing it with a Freshman under Center, for Dillion Gabriel (61.7%, 1,338 YDS, 11.2 Y/A, 14 TD, 2 INT) has played beyond his years despite his brief CV. Of course, the Knights lost two-time reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year, McKenzie Milton late in 2018, when the Quarterback suffered a terrible injury, tearing multiple ligaments in his right knee, with lingering nerve damage forcing the Senior to redshirt this season. As you can imagine, this created quite a void at the game’s most important position, with Heupel instituting an open competition during the Summer, which featured a host of names and numbers, including Notre Dame transfer, Brandon Wimbush (54.2%, 167 YDS, 7.0 Y/A, 2 TD, 0 INT), who after three years in South Bend, was able to move to Orlando without having to sacrifice a year of eligibility. Initially, the Coaching Staff opted to go with a dual-QB setup, with both Wimbush and Gabriel taking snaps in the team’s 62-0 drubbing of Florida A&M in the Season Opener, though the latter has since cemented himself as the unquestioned Starter. With Central Florida coming off of their first defeat of the campaign, a narrow 34-35 loss at Pittsburgh which served as their first Regular Season failure in nearly three years, the two-time AAC Champions opened up their league account with a convincing 56-21 thumping of Connecticut last Saturday Night. This one wasn’t even as close as the final score would indicate, as the hosts scored twenty-eight unanswered points in the First Quarter before running their onslaught to 56-0 late in the third stanza. When it was all over, Heupel’s troops amassed 607 Total Yards of Offense, with Gabriel completing an efficient 11-of-16 Passes for 281 Yards and Three Touchdowns, while the Defense aided in their endeavors, forcing Four Turnovers. Darriel Mack (69.2%, 97 YDS, 7.5 Y/A, 1 TD, 0 INT) would come in to relieve Gabriel following the Third Quarter, throwing a Touchdown Pass in what was his first action of the season after sitting out the previous four contests rehabbing from an ankle injury. The Redshirt Sophomore carried the team following the aforementioned Milton’s season-ending injury last season, and was initially expected to man that position heading into 2019. No matter who has been slinging the rock, Gabriel Jones (25 REC, 499 YDS, 20.0 Y/R, 8 TD) has oftentimes been their primary outlet, with the Junior Receiver blazing a trail through the first four games, hauling in Twenty-Five Receptions for 499 Yards and Eight Touchdowns, already eclipsing his score total of 2018. Jones has been nothing short of a big play machine over the past two outings, reeling in Fifteen Catches for 270 Yards and Five Touchdowns, including scores of twenty-eight and seventy-three yards. There is no doubt that UCF will be relishing the opportunity to meet Cincinnati once more, for they have absolutely handled their East Division rivals of late, winning three consecutive meetings, and outscoring the Bearcats 113-39 over that span.
Meanwhile, as dominant as their opponent has been in league play of late, it’s easy to overlook Cincinnati (3-1, 0-0 in AAC), who have really made some considerable strides over the past few years. Three years ago, the Bearcats floundered to a 4-8 record, leaving them without a Bowl for just the second time in eleven years. After relieving Tommy Tuberville of his duties, the Program decided to stay within the state of Ohio to secure his replacement, hiring Ohio State Defensive Coordinator, Luke Fickell. Though he didn’t possess any true experience leading a program as a Head Coach, the longtime Assistant served as the Buckeyes’ Interim Head Coach following the school’s dismissal of Jim Tressel in 2011, and then went on to spend the next five years as Urban Meyer’s Co-Defensive Coordinator, highlighted by their National Championship triumph in 2014. Indeed, he acquainted himself quickly at Cincinnati, where after equaling his predecessor’s mark in his first season, would go on to put together an 11-2 campaign, in which he garnered AAC Coach of the Year honors in the process. This season, he and his charges have continued their momentum, winning three of their first four outings, with that lone loss being a 0-42 shutout loss at his former employers. When we last the Bearcats, they went on the road to dismantle Marshall in a 52-14 affair, which wasn’t nearly as close as that final score would lead you to believe. The visitors led 45-0 heading into the final frame, en route to racking up 525 Total Yards on Twenty-Nine First Downs, including 230 Rushing Yards and Three Touchdowns on Fifty-Two Carries, and another 295 Yards and four more scores through the air. Desmond Ridder (64.3%, 815 YD, 8.3 Y/A, 8 TD, 3 INT) had himself quite a day at Quarterback, completing an efficient 18-of-22 Passes for 221 Yards and a season-high Four Touchdowns, while rushing for another Forty-Eight Yards on Nine Carries. Four different players hauled in a score, with Alec Pierce (14 REC, 277 YDS, 19.8 Y/R, 1 TD) chief among them, totaling 108 Yards on Six Receptions. Defensively, the Bearcats relegated the Thundering Herd to just 256 Total Yards, the third opponent that they’ve managed to keep under 300, with Edge-Rushers, Ethan Tucky (16 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 SK) and Michael Pitts (16 TKL, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD), each notching a Sack. All in all, this had to have been the ideal showing in their final tune-up heading into conference play, particularly with Ridder turning his most complete performance of the season. Saturday’s victory marked the first contest this season in which the Redshirt Sophomore didn’t throw an Interception, while matching his total of Touchdowns from the previous three games altogether. While Fickell has routinely commented on his Quarterback’s growing command of the Offense, this meeting with Central Florida should serve as a good litmus test as to where the young Signal-Caller is in terms of operating within the scheme. When these team’s met last season, a 38-13 Knights’ victory in Orlando, Ridder struggled to build much an attack despite his side rushing for 252 Yards, seventy of which he accounted for himself, completing just 11-of-26 Passes for 127 Yards. While it will be interesting to see just how much the young Quarterback has grown his last encounter with UCF, how the Defense approaches this matchup should peak the interest of many in southern Ohio. After all, Cincinnati limited their prolific rivals to 407 Total Yards, which was actually the lowest total that they had accumulated in the Regular Season in 2018. Through four games, Fickell’s troops are allowing just 20.8 Points per Game (36th Overall) on 297.3 Total Yards, 13.7 Points on 227 Total Yards if you take away that aforementioned drubbing at Ohio State.