ATLANTA — First contact. That’s when the butterflies will go away for defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman. Feeling a little fluttery in your stomach is certainly understandable today. Coaches and players can try to write this off as another game, but not every game has a formal title that ends in “Bowl.” Not every game, especially for UCF, takes place at a new NFL stadium in front of a crowd that’s expected to be north of 70,000. Not every game is played on New Year’s Day.
This isn’t just another game. And what if UCF wins it?
“I don’t even know. It’ll be crazy. I don’t really have an answer for that question,” Pittman said.
What we've worked for all season…
— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) January 1, 2018
The 50th Peach Bowl presented by Chick-fil-A will get underway at 12:30 p.m. from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
- Play-by-play: Dave Flemming is a radio play-by-play announcer for the San Francisco Giants aside from his play-by-play work on many sports for ESPN.
- Analyst: Brock Huard spent seven seasons in the NFL and was a standout quarterback at the University of Washington back in the 1990s. He has been with ESPN since 2008 and also serves as an analyst for Fox Sports during Seattle Seahawks exhibition games.
- Sideline: Allison Williams is a University of Miami graduate who works on ESPN’s college football and college basketball telecasts. She previously worked as a pregame/postgame host and sideline reporter for Miami Marlins broadcasts.
The last meeting, 1999: The Tigers won this matchup, 28-10. But the game in this series that sticks out in the mind of Knights fans and causes them to grit their teeth occurred in 1998. Our Jeff Sharon wrote about that game a few weeks ago:
Three Things You Should Know
Final Frost (for real now)
We’ve been through this drill a few times already, but we can finally say that today is Scott Frost’s last day as acting UCF head coach. Here is what he told the media yesterday about his decision to stick with this team through the Peach Bowl while also fulfilling his duties as the new head coach at Nebraska.
“This has been a really great experience, this Bowl game, to spend some more time around (the players) and be around them one more time. It will be tomorrow. This certainly isn’t an ideal situation for the players or for me or for my staff, but we all care about each other, and I don’t know what the alternative would have been. So we’re doing the best we can and the guys have been prepared well. It’s been an honor to be around them one more time.”
The best part of being around Frost these past couple weeks is that he can be more honest about issues that don’t directly concern him any longer. Whereas he once said that he wasn’t bothered by UCF’s rankings treatment and that a non-power conference team could reach the College Football Playoff soon, he has basically restated the opposite of those opinions since his move to Nebraska became official. And to those out there who think a UCF victory in the Peach Bowl will be the key to finally unlocking national respect it seeks, Frost would like to have a word with you.
“It will help a lot until next year when everybody forgets about it,” he said. “… People are going to put the onus for the entire conference on us to see if the conference deserves to be in the conversation and if the Power Six deserves to be in the conversation. There’s been games where Houston beat Florida State, and USF beat somebody good, and Utah beat Alabama … . This game is about this game. This game is not really about [the AAC’s national perception]. People try to make it about that, but it isn’t.”
Auburn’s All-American CB ruled out
The strength of Auburn’s defense is up front, but their players in the back will have to compensate for the loss of a playmaker. Cornerback Carlton Davis, a second-team All-American selection by a handful of publications, will not play today due to an illness. The junior leads the Tigers with 11 pass breakups and has been given a first-round projection by some NFL draftniks, although he has yet to disclose his future plans.
His spot the starting lineup will likely be taken by sophomore Javaris Davis. He has tallied 26 tackles and two interceptions in 10 games this season. The news of Carlton Davis’ absence came as news to Frost during Sunday’s press conference.
“I was hoping the list (of inactive Auburn players) would keep growing,” he joked. “The four defensive linemen maybe and the running back.”
Auburn Coming In
The Tigers (11-3) are returning to the scene of what must be their season’s greatest disappointment. On Dec. 2, Auburn lost the SEC Championship Game in this stadium to the Georgia Bulldogs, 28-7. That knocked Auburn, who was ranked No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings entering that day, out of the top four. A return trip was the consolation prize. On the brighter side for War Eagle fans, the Tigers reached that conference title game by defeating No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl the week prior. The Tigers are the only team to defeat multiple No. 1 squads this season (Alabama on Nov. 25, Georgia on Nov. 11).
When UCF Has the Ball
UCF Offense: Get ready to show that speed. Adrian Killins‘ quote about how Auburn hasn’t seen speed the likes of what UCF possesses has not gone unnoticed by the Tigers. They have said that it’s been bulletin board material for the team. However, UCF would be best served by accentuating its speed in multiple facets today. Expect Killins and Otis Anderson to get plenty of work on the ground where the Knights hope to run effectively enough to keep them out of long-distance downs. When they go to the air, McKenzie Milton will need to get the ball out of his hand quickly in order to neutralize the Tigers’ fearsome pass rush. UCF will obviously take some downfield shots, especially with Carlton Davis sidelined, but just from talking to Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters this week, it seems like a greater emphasis has been placed on drawing up screens and quick routes for Tre’Quan Smith and company.
Or maybe that’s just what they want us to believe…
Auburn Defense: Test that O-line. The Tigers might be able to blow up the Knights’ game plan from the start if UCF’s changes at left tackle and left guard can’t hold off the Tigers’ defensive front. I wrote more about this matchup here:
When Auburn Has the Ball
Auburn Offense: Kerryon carries on and on. UCF has been taken advantage of by opposing ground games in its last five games, having allowed 5.2 yards per tote. So here comes Kerryon Johnson, the SEC’s second-leading rusher who has scored 17 rushing touchdowns despite missing two early-season games due to a hamstring strain and being heavily impacted by rib and shoulder ailments down the stretch. However, Johnson declared himself to be 100 percent healthy Saturday and said he hasn’t felt any discomfort for about two weeks. Given the Knights’ issues against the run, expect them to get a heavy dose of the 6-foot, 212-pound junior.
UCF Defense: Shaq’s swan song. The keys for the Knights’ defense are pretty obvious: Slow down Johnson and don’t have any of those communication breakdowns that plagued the secondary versus South Florida and Memphis. But really, all eyes should be on Shaquem Griffin. He has seen it all. He was on the team for its Fiesta Bowl win but barely played during his first two seasons in Black and Gold, even as the Knights headed to a winless season. Then Scott Frost’s regime gave him the opportunity he needed to prove himself and ever since, Griffin has been become one of the best players in the AAC, the on-field face of this program and an inspiration.
“Obviously, the first thing that pops out (on film), whether you want it to or not, is the missing hand,” Johnson said of Griffin. “When you see him, you say, ‘Oh, he’s got to be limited in some way.’ But he plays the game as if he has three hands.”
What will Griffin do in his final collegiate game? At the very least, you know he will give everything he has.
Work hard. ⚔️ Play hard.
— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) December 31, 2017
Line: Auburn opened as a 9.5-favorite and now sits at -10.5, according to VegasInsider.com. The over-under has moved from 65 to 67.
Weather: It is a perfect 72 degrees inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Outside, however, the temperature may barely reach north of 30 under partly cloudy skies.
Pick: Something’s got to give in this matchup: The Knights haven’t scored fewer than 30 points this season while the Tigers have yet to give up 30 points. Not that it means much to UCF fans, but I think the Knights are a great bet to cover that double-digit spread. They will prove they belong on this stage, and I believe that their offense will snap the Auburn defense’s sub-30 points streak. In the end, I’m skeptical as to if UCF’s defense will make enough stops of its own.
Auburn 38, UCF 31.