AAC Title, New Year’s Six Bowl Bid at Stake in UCF-Memphis Rematch

UCF Knights Memphis Tigers Football
Tre'Quan Smith and the Knights crushed the Tigers back in September. Can they do it again in Saturday's conference championship game? (Photo: Derek Warden)

#FinalFrost?

Friday marks the two-year anniversary of when Scott Frost was named UCF Football’s head coach. Saturday could mark his last day with that job title.

But while Frost’s future is the top story in Orlando, his team is doing its best to block out the noise and look ahead to what really matters to them: An American Athletic Conference championship.

“Now we’re ring-chasing,” running back Adrian Killins said this week.

The Knights have been chasing that ring since the spring, and you shouldn’t expect them to be distracted by any news off the field. To them, this game versus Memphis is the one they feel like they have to win.

“When it comes to us focusing, we didn’t come this far for no reason, “defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman said.” And it’s going to seem like it was for no reason if we lose.”

To the winner will go not only a conference championship but a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, likely the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

Kickoff

The American Athletic Conference Championship Game will begin at 12:07 p.m. Saturday at Spectrum Stadium. Just like last week, get there early.

TV

  • ABC
  • Play-by-play: Steve Levy, who is in his 25th year with ESPN. Most recognized as a “SportsCenter” anchor and NHL announcer, Levy has been on the call for college football afternoon games on ABC/ESPN since 2016.
  • Analyst: Brian Griese won a national championship as the quarterback at the University of Michigan in 1997 and then spent 11 seasons in the NFL. He joined ESPN as a college football analyst in 2009.
  • Sideline: Todd McShay, one of ESPN’s leading voices during its NFL Draft coverage. McShay has been working as a college football field analyst for the network for the past three years.

Series

UCF leads, 10-1.

The last meeting, 2017: You have to go back only a couple of months for the last get-together the Tigers and Knights shared. After their originally scheduled meeting was called off due to Hurricane Irma, the teams played on Sept. 30 at the Spectrum. The Knights absolutely romped, 40-13. The night was highlighted by a 96-yard touchdown run from Killins, one fo UCF’s plays of the year.

The Knights ran for 350 yards on the ground that evening. Quarterback McKenzie Milton threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns, and the defense forced four turnovers. But Pittman knows that it’s difficult to beat a team twice in one season.

“That’s hard for anybody. Middle school, high school; I know it’s going to be hard for college,” he said. “The only thing we’ve got to do is what we’ve been doing: Film, practice hard and hopefully the rest will take care of itself.”

Three Things You Should Know

Sweet 16: UCF has been setting records all season and notched a big one on Wednesday. That’s when the Knights set an AAC record with 16 all-conference selections. Nine Knights were named to the all-conference first team, including Milton, the AAC’s Offensive Player of the Year. Frost was a unanimous pick for Coach of the Year. Junior Mike Hughes made it on to both teams: He was a first-team selection as a cornerback and a second-team selection as a kick returner. You can see the full list here.

Memphis saw six of its players land on the first team, including quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller.

Two head coaches leaving?: There will actually be more than one head coach on the field Saturday who could be changing schools in the near future. The rumors have been flying around Memphis’ Mike Norvell as well, with reports tying him most closely to the vacant head coaching position at Arkansas. Norvell is in his second season with the Tigers and possesses a 17-8 record.

Especially special teams: We will talk about the important things to watch on offense and defense below, but you absolutely can not overlook special teams in this game. Specifically, every kick return Saturday will deserve your full, undivided attention. That’s because two of the best returners in the nation will be showing their skills. You know about Hughes, the man who orchestrated the most memorable moment in the program’s best game ever. But there’s a reason why he was an all-conference second-team kick returner instead of a first-team pick. The Tigers’ Tony Pollard has a ridiculous 44.2 yards per return average. That’s almost 10 full yards ahead of Hughes, whose 34.9 mark is the third-best in the country. Pollard has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns and was tabbed this week as the AAC’s Special Teams Player of the Year for the second season in a row.

In the first meeting, the Knights kicked away from Pollard, holding him to 40 yards on only two returns. Expect UCF to exercise the same caution the second time around.

Memphis Coming In

The Tigers have run off seven consecutive victories since their loss in Orlando, which stands as the lone blemish on their 10-1 record. During that time, they have averaged 53.6 points per game and have topped 65 points thrice. No team has held Memphis to fewer than 30 points since the Knights held them to 13. As a result, Memphis is now No. 2 in the country in scoring offense at 47.0. The Knights still sit at No. 1 with 48.3.

When UCF Has the Ball

UCF Offense: More Magic Milton. The Tigers said their focus this week is stopping UCF’s running game. That’s no surprise considering how Killins and Co. diced Memphis earlier in the year. Whether the visitors can accomplish that goal is debatable, but it probably means the Knights hopes for a conference championship hinge on Milton’s performance. The sophomore ranks second in the FBS in completion percentage and passing efficiency, trailing only Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield in both categories. Frost has said that Milton deserves some attention from the Heisman voters and that not enough people realize just how good he has been in 2017.

“McKenzie is not getting enough credit for what he’s done this year, in my opinion,” Frost said Monday. “He’s one of the best players in college football and he showed it again Friday. I think the whole country got to see it. What I want everybody that hasn’t watched him to know is that’s the way he’s played for 11 games.”

Memphis Defense: How do you like me now? To any Knights fans who think Saturday’s game is going to be easy based on what UCF did to Memphis back in September, think again. This is a different Tigers team, especially on the defensive side.

In that first matchup, the Tigers’ defense was missing three starters and nine players with starting experience due to injuries, including linebacker Curtis Akins, the team’s second-leading tackler. The freshmen and first-time starters who had to fill those shoes were no match for the Knights. But many of those players have returned to the field and others have taken their play to a higher level. Norvell admitted this week that he didn’t know what he had in his secondary at the beginning of the year. Now, the likes of Josh Perry, Jonathan Cook, Tito Windham and T.J. Carter make up a defensive backfield that has had a hand in 17 turnovers this season. Senior linebacker Genard Avery leads the AAC with 18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 of which have come in the past four games.

Episode 77: Scott Frost’s Future and American Athletic Conference Championship Preview

When Memphis Has the Ball

Memphis Offense: Redemption. “Coach, that will never happen again.”

That’s what Ferguson told Norvell on the plane ride back from Orlando following that 40-13 drubbing. True to his word, Ferguson has played lights-out football since Sept. 30. He threw three interceptions in that UCF game; he has thrown three since to go along with 23 TDs. Similarly, running back Darrell Henderson couldn’t get much going versus the Knights, gaining 48 yards on just six carries. He’ll enter Saturday riding a four-game streak with at least 100 rushing yards, which has helped him become the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009.

That Sept. 30 game was the Tigers worst of the year by far. It’s not just that they lost; they were embarrassed.

“To put it bluntly, we weren’t ready,” offensive lineman Gabe Kuhn said.

You have to imagine that the Tigers have been hoping for two months to get this second chance. It’s here now, and the Knights better be prepared.

UCF Defense: Perimeter game. Memphis’ AAC first-team wide receiver, Anthony Miller, was limited to just three catches for 37 yards by UCF. However, he has been toying with defensive backs ever since, accumulating more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns through the past seven games. Miller has established himself as one of the most dangerous receivers in the nation and is averaging the fifth-most receiving yards per game in the FBS. So let’s see what the Knights’ secondary — namely, cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Nevelle Clarke, and safety Tre Neal — has in store for an encore. That group quieted another first-team wideout when it kept SMU’s Courtland Sutton to a simple 5-46-0 line last month. Locking down Miller will go a long way toward raising that conference championship trophy.

Line: The Knights opened as a 7.5-point favorite, but the line settled at 7 on Sunday and has stayed there. Given what you now know about both of these teams, it should come as no shock that the over-under is huge: 81. It was once up to 85.5.

Weather: The temperature should be approaching 80 by the time kickoff arrives. The game will be played under a mixture of sun and clouds, but there is very little threat of rain. The wind will be blowing from the northeast at 5 mph.

Pick: Offensive lineman Aaron Evans agreed with Pittman’s statement that losing Saturday would negate what this team has accomplished thus far. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it seems to be the rallying cry this week. And after persevering through a hurricane, the pressures of remaining undefeated and the rumors surrounding their head coach, I just don’t see this Knights squad falling short now. Get ready for some points

UCF 48, Memphis 38

About Brian Murphy 40 Articles

Brian Murphy graduated from UCF in 2009 following four years as a sports writer for the dearly departed Central Florida Future. He has been writing about sports — college, pro or fantasy — since 2001. Favorite UCF athlete to interview? Former running back Kevin Smith. You can follow Brian on Twitter: @Spokes_Murphy

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