Leading into one of their toughest tests of the season, this has not been a normal preparation week for UCF Football and its head coach, Scott Frost. Instead of Xs and Os, the top stories around the team have included the Florida Gators' interest in Frost to fill their head coaching vacancy. There is the anticipated arrival of Frost's son -- which could happen any minute now. And there is the mounting pressure within the team to stay undefeated. The Knights know what one loss would do to their season just from what happened last Saturday to the South Florida Bulls, who fell all the way out of the top-25.
Defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman said that while behind undefeated doesn't apply any extra pressure to the Knights, all of the players are aware of how one loss will change the year's entire outlook.
"We know if we stop doing what we're doing, it can all be gone," he said.
UCF's task right now is to block all of that out, go on the road to Dallas and defeat an SMU team scoring more than 40 points per game during its Homecoming week. This will not be easy.
The Knights and the Mustangs will clash inside Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas starting at 7:15 p.m. Saturday
- Play-by-play: Anish Shroff, who is closing in on 10 years with ESPN. He serves as a play-by-play announcer, studio host and anchor for a good portion of the network's college sports coverage, including college football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse.
- Analyst: Ahmad D. Brooks, a former cornerback and team captain at Texas who spent three years in the NFL, Brooks is a college football analyst and studio host for ESPNU and the Longhorn Network.
- Sideline: Roddy Jones, who is in his first year as a college football sideline reporter for ESPN. Jones was a four-year starting wideout at Georgia Tech and previously worked for the ACC Network. Brooks and Jones were also on the broadcast for the Knights' game versus Memphis earlier this season.
UCF, 6-1. The Knights have owned this series outside a Mustang victory in 2011. The last meeting between these two squads came in 2014, when UCF waxed SMU in Orlando, 53-7.
However, the most unforgettable matchup in this series came a year prior. Much like this season, UCF had a conference title chance and a major bowl appearance on the line traveling to Dallas late in the year. The unique wrinkle? That game was played in mid-20 temperatures -- the coldest game in UCF Football history -- with ice surrounding the field. Offensive lineman Aaron Evans was a freshman then and his memories of that 17-13 triumph remain fresh.
"That was one of the worst experiences of my life because and I wasn't playing and it was 20 degrees or something," he said. "Literally, people's beards were freezing."
Three Things You Should Know
Baby Frost update: As of Friday morning, Frost's wife, Ashley, has yet to give birth to the couple's son, who was due Wednesday. As such, Frost is scheduled to fly out with his team to Dallas today. If Ashley goes into labor prior to the game, Frost has made it clear that he will do anything to see the birth of his first child, and he would thereby leave the team in the hands of his assistants. Specifically, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander would become the acting head coach with help from running backs coach Ryan Held. Offensive coordinator Troy Walters would assume the play-calling duties.
"This staff is capable, competent and they don't need me," Frost said. "Any single person in this organization isn't indispensable and that includes me. This
place will be fine if I have to be with Ashley."
At this point, I think all parties involved would prefer for Baby Frost to make his entrance after the game. But it's anyone's guess as of right now whether UCF will have its head coach present come kickoff on Saturday night.
Coach Frost addresses the Florida rumors: Frost's name was one of the first mentioned for the UF job once Jim McElwain was relieved of his duties Sunday. The last thing Frost wants to do is talk about something other than what his Knights are trying to accomplish on the field, but he was asked about the rumors earlier this week. Here's how he responded:
"I haven't heard from anybody. Those things might be hard for [the media] to ignore, but they're really easy for me to ignore. I show up to work and watch film and get practice ready and go out and do my best to get our team ready. I don't pay any attention to it. It would be a crime for me to do that with the sacrifices that our team and coaching staff have made and the type of season that these guys have put together. They deserve my 100 percent focus and they have it."
Milton in the running for the Maxwell: As far as matters relating to actual football ... McKenzie Milton is one of the best players in college football right now. You probably don't need me to tell you that, but that fact was solidified this week when the Knights' starting quarterback was named as one of the 18 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award, which recognizes the player of the year in FBS college football.
Milton leads the nation in completion percentage (72.9), passing yards per attempt (11.28) and passing efficiency (199.7). He also ranks among college football's top 20 in passing touchdowns (19) and total offensive yards per game (321.6).
But hey, forget the Maxwell; Evans said Milton should "absolutely" be considered for the Heisman Trophy.
"You can't have production like that and not be in the conversation," the senior said.
SMU Coming In
The Mustangs have won four of their last five games. They became bowl-eligible with their 38-34 victory over Tulsa last week, which featured a controversial and impactful excessive celebration penalty that took a touchdown for the Golden Hurricane off the board. Regardless, SMU's offense is multi-faceted and dangerous. It ranks ninth in the FBS in points per game (41.5), and three Mustangs topped 100 receiving yards during that Tulsa matchup. With only one conference loss to their credit and with West Division-leading Memphis still on their schedule, the Mustangs control their own destiny to reach the American Athletic Conference Championship Game.
When UCF Has the Ball
UCF Offense: The big wideouts must show up. SMU is known for its wide receiving corps -- and we'll cover that in a minute -- but UCF's men on the outside are pretty darn good as well. Tre'Quan Smith and Dredrick Snelson need to make big plays in a game that promises to have plenty of points. Smith has been displaying his big-play ability all season long -- his nine receiving TDs are tied for third-most in the country -- and Snelson turned in what may be the play of the year from a UCF wideout last week.
"Me going up and making plays is sort of my thing," Snelson said this week.
SMU Defense: Apply more pressure. As if that internal pressure to keep the perfect season intact wasn't enough, UCF will face plenty of pressure externally from SMU's stout defensive front. Defensive lineman Justin Lawler paces the AAC with 7.5 sacks, and linebacker Kyran Mitchell has added four sacks of his own. Those two are also among the top 20 in the FBS in tackles for loss per game. Keeping Lawler and Mitchell at bay will be a high priority for a UCF offensive line that has allowed just five sacks in seven games.
When SMU Has the Ball
SMU Offense: Pick UCF's poison. Courtland Sutton, at 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, might be the best wide receiver in the nation and will perhaps be the first WR drafted next spring. He has had a stellar season, posting a 43-706-9 line up to this point. But SMU's leading receiver is Trey Quinn, an LSU transfer who has been a terror out of the slot. Quinn leads the FBS in receptions (79) and ranks fourth in receiving yards per game (109.3). Plus, James Proche racked up 123 yards on four catches against Tulsa. Quarterback Ben Hicks has no shortage of options from which to choose. How the Knights choose to defend them will be fascinating.
UCF Defense: Once again, tackle! Jeff said it last week after the Austin Peay win, and it has been a focal point for the Knights all week: They must do a better job of wrapping up. Missed tackles against Austin Peay is one thing; doing the same versus a top-10 FBS offense won't produce another 40-point win. The defense, to a man, preached this week about going into SMU with a sharper focus and placing a greater emphasis on doing all of the small things needed to get a W.
"Even though we came out with the W (against Austin Peay), our standards are so high that we felt like we didn't accomplish what we needed to," linebacker Shaquem Griffin said. "... With this game right here, our whole thing is not worrying about the team we're playing against, but just making sure we trust in everything our coaches are telling us to do."
Line: The Knights began the week as 13.5-point favorites and are now up to 14.5. The over-under is a monstrous 73. The only game Saturday with a greater over-under currently is Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State (76).
Weather: Don't expect any frozen beards this time around; the kickoff temperature will be around 80. These two teams will play under mostly clear skies with 10-15 mph winds coming out of the south.
Pick: This game will be a tense one to watch and, in my opinion, is the Knights' last real challenge before that Black Friday game versus USF everyone has circled on their calendar. Although SMU has a few productive defenders, the Mustangs want to outscore you; that's how they win. But how do you defeat the team that is the best at what you do best? If the Knights don't beat themselves with turnovers or poor fundamentals, their defense should be able to make just enough stops to win the day.
That win may not be the most important thing in Frost's life right now, but it would make the arrival of his son just a little sweeter.
UCF 48, SMU 40
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article stated UCF was undefeated heading into the SMU game in 2013. The Knights had one loss. But it sure felt like we were undefeated, amirite?