Well, here we are. Each season's USF-UCF gridiron meeting is an anticipated one simply for pride and bragging rights alone. But this isn't just another meeting.
The American Athletic Conference East title, a shot at a conference championship, each team's aspirations for a New Year's Six bowl and the Knights' dreams of an undefeated regular season all hinge on what happens this Friday. That makes Scott Frost's job pretty easy.
"It's not going to take a rah-rah speech or me using some gimmick to get guys fired us for this game," he said Monday. "These guys are going to be ready to play this one."
Why say anything more? Let's get into it.
The Great #WarOnI4 is here.— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) November 20, 2017
( fan video ) pic.twitter.com/omVINeIO3a
The latest edition of the War on I-4 will get underway at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Spectrum Stadium. And I think I am obligated by UCF Athletics to advise you to show up early. Really early.
- Play-by-play: Adam Amin has been on the play-by-play call for myriad sports, including NFL, MLB, college football and college basketball, since joining ESPN in 2011,
- Analyst: Dusty Dvoracek is a former Oklahoma Sooner and Chicago Bear. Besides his analyst job at ESPN, he is a sports radio host in Oklahoma.
- Sideline: Molly McGrath has been a sideline reporter for ESPN since the summer of 2016. She also has hosting experience with some of the network's college football shows.
The last meeting, 2016: UCF fans may not want to remember the result as the Bulls won, 48-31. However, you can bet many UCF players and coaches haven't forgotten how that game ended. Note the score and the time left on the clock:
There were mixed opinions on that play from the Knights we spoke to this week. Senior offensive lineman Aaron Evans said that going for the score there was a sign of "disrespect."
"There's no need to drive it into the ground like that, but they did, so we'll remember it," Evans said. "We'll take that to heart as we practice and prepare this week, and we'll remember that when we come to the game this week."
Conversely, senior defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman didn't see much of a problem with the tack-on touchdown. He said he would expect his team to do the same if it was in that position at the end of a rivalry game: "If it's a battle on I-4 like we say it is, why not?"
It should be noted that USF has made a coaching change since last year's game. Current head man Charlie Strong had nothing to do with that play, but I don't think that matters to some Knights.
Three Things You Should Know
History at the Spectrum: Is this game the biggest in the history of Spectrum Stadium (née Bright House Networks Stadium)? Our Eric Lopez said "Yes" during this week's Black and Gold Banneret podcast. He should know since he wrote about the topic before this season began. It's difficult to disagree with Lopez considering what's at stake and that Friday's game will be the stadium's first between a pair of top-20 teams. The Knights and Bulls are ranked No. 12 and No. 19, respectively, in this week's Coaches Poll.
Episode 76: War on I-4 Extravaganza
Senior Knight: If the Knights win this game, they will host the AAC Championship next week and would thereby play once more at home before the season is over. Yet, the program will honor its seniors prior to Friday's kickoff. That group includes some players who have seen the program at its highest highs (the 2014 Fiesta Bowl win) and its lowest lows (the entire 2015 campaign). Evans, a redshirt senior, said these past five years have been a "whirlwind of emotions," but he is proud to say he has given his all to UCF each week.
"I've grown a lot as a man over the last five years and I think that's really what I have become: a man," Evans said. "That's the biggest thing that I've gotten my experience. I'm really happy about it obviously."
From Day ☝️ till now, our seniors have led the way ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/pSogkUoY8F— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) November 20, 2017
#SellOutSpectrum: It's not just a hashtag anymore. Friday's game is officially a sellout, UCF's first in four years. You wanna guess which team the Knights were facing that week? You probably need only one guess.
"If we can get it loud and rocking in there, that'll give us an advantage."— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) November 20, 2017
Coach on turning the ⬆️ on Friday#RiseandConquer pic.twitter.com/98CdbOGQnr
South Florida Coming In
The 9-1 Bulls were the unanimous preseason favorite to win the American. They still have a chance to do so after winning back-to-back contests following their home loss to Houston on Oct. 28. However, USF hasn't been overly impressive in the past month. It almost blew a 34-7 lead at Tulane before holding on to win by six. They were beaten by the Cougars and then avoided disaster versus a two-win Tulsa squad with a nail-biting 27-20 victory last week.
"In all three phases (offense, defense, special teams), we have yet to see a complete game," Charlie Strong said Monday. "And we need a complete game this week. That's what it is going to take: A total team effort,"
When UCF Has the Ball
UCF Offense: Just play your game. Not only is this a simple week for Frost from a motivational standpoint, there also shouldn't be much he has to do with his offense from a schematic standpoint. The Knights need McKenzie Milton to continue playing mistake-free football. Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson have to contribute explosive plays on the ground. Tre'Quan Smith must make a couple of tough, contested catches down the field. Just execute. It's the same recipe every week, and nothing major will change at this point in an undefeated season with an offense that still leads the FBS in points per game. The challenge is accomplishing those goals against the best defense in the American and one of the best in the entire nation.
South Florida Defense: We're No. 1! Pick a defensive statistic in the AAC and odds are USF is probably at the top of the heap. Scoring defense; total defense; rushing defense; passing defense; interceptions; tackles for loss; sacks; fewest first downs allowed. The Bulls pace the conference in every one of those categories and are inside the FBS' top 25 in all of them as well. They are led by senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who broke the school's record for career tackles last week versus the Golden Hurricane. He has registered a team-high 74 tackles this season to go along with nine tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions.
When South Florida Has the Ball
South Florida Offense: Stop and fell the QB Flowers. Senior quarterback Quinton Flowers will be public enemy No. 1 for the Knights' defense Friday. He hasn't had his best season as a passer (53.5 completion percentage; 133.8 passing efficiency), but to say he is a dual threat is an understatement. Flowers ranks sixth in the entire conference in rushing yardage per game and is just 96 yards shy of setting a new USF record for career total offense.
"He's just got a knack," Frost said of Flowers. " ... When he's really dangerous is when things break down. You think you're stopping those guys and then he'll make nine guys miss and go 60. He's created so many big plays in his career there. If we can stop him from making too many big plays, then I'll like where we are in the game."
USF's best path to victory is on the ground where Flowers and senior running backs Darius Tice and D'Ernest Johnson all rank inside the conference's top 10 in rushing yards per game and have accounted for all but one of the Bulls' 27 rushing touchdowns.
UCF Defense: Winning the turnover battle. For all of the USF defense's bona fides, there is one stat where UCF's defense is better: The all-important turnover margin. The Knights and Bulls respectively rank 1-2 in the AAC in turnover margin and are both among the nation's top five teams in that category.
The Knights own a plus-1.6 turnover rate per game and are coming off a Temple triumph in which five turnovers led directly to short fields and 24 points for the offense. Frost certainly understands how critical those extra possessions will be against the Bulls.
"That does change a game," he said. "We need to avoid [turnovers] on Friday. Our defense needs to keep doing a good job of getting it back for us. That turnover stat will play a big part in who wins the game on Friday."
.@BobBuckhorn Your #WarOnI4 wager is accepted. I look forward to seeing this @UCFKnights flag flying at Tampa City Hall.— Mayor Buddy Dyer (@orlandomayor) November 20, 2017
If USF wins, some @OrlandoBrewing and a made in Orlando @VictoryTailgate cornhole board are coming your way and we'll fly the Bulls flag at City Hall. pic.twitter.com/y0SF6kfLKl
Line: According to VegasInsider.com, the Knights began the week as a 10.5-point favorite and that's where the line stands as of Wednesday afternoon. The over-under is 62.
Weather: Uh-oh. It looks like there will be some thunderstorms rolling through during the game. That would literally put on a damper on the sold-out Spectrum. The temperature will be in the mid-70s with 10-15 mph winds coming out of the east.
Pick: Evans, who grew up in Hillsborough County, said that although he represents the 813, "I bleed Black and Gold. I'm excited about this opportunity to do my family proud, do my area proud, and UCF is going to be the champions."
Now, I would not take those final seven words to be a guarantee. Evans was sort of looking for something to end on and pulled out a prediction of sorts. Inadvertently, I imagine. But in the end, I agree. However, because this is a true rivalry game, I think the final score will probably be closer than Vegas projects.
UCF 35, USF 28