The UCF Football team has gotten -- or rather, earned -- everything it could have wished for this season. The only thing it didn't get on its way to a 12-0 record was some rest.
Hurricane Irma forced the Knights to play 11 games in 11 weeks, culminating with their two-overtime thriller versus Memphis on Dec. 2. Their reward for that win was an AAC Championship and, finally, some downtime. You better believe they needed it.
"The last couple of weeks, our legs were feeling kind of tired," senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin said. "You'd be running, but it felt like you were in quicksand."
The players took all of last week off before returning to the practice field Tuesday to begin their preparation for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl versus Auburn on Jan. 1. Being able to get some juice back in their legs has made a significant difference, according to the team's own Juice.
"It feels like we have new bodies," running back Otis Anderson said Wednesday. "... I feel like we're playing a lot faster than what we had been playing."
Anderson said going fast, playing fast will be the key to a Knights victory in Atlanta. Of course, his backfield mate, Adrian Killins agrees:
UCF RB Adrian Killins says Auburn is in for a "rude awakening." pic.twitter.com/RZ8BvIju6h— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) December 15, 2017
The originator of #UCFast returned to Orlando prior to Tuesday's practice. Scott Frost has come back with his entire staff of ex-UCF/current Nebraska coaches to run these practices and to coach the Knights through their bowl game. They carry a simple message: Let's finish. Griffin said that while it was a little awkward at first to see Frost back at UCF Football headquarters, there are no hard feelings because the players understand that the decision Frost made to head home to Nebraska was the best for him and his family, and they are "blessed" to have the entire staff lead them one final time.
"The coaches, they didn't have to choose to come back and be with us," Griffin said. "It just goes to show ... they are worrying about us finishing what we started. It feels good to have them back."
"We wanted to finish this thing out," offensive lineman Wyatt Miller said. "It's something that [Frost] started and we feel like he should be able to finish it. We're a team and we're all as one, so we feel like we should finish this thing together. We started at 12-0. We might as well finish at 13-0.
To do that, UCF will have to defeat an SEC power that was ranked No. 2 in the polls earlier this month. It's an opportunity for the Knights, who are currently 9.5-point underdogs versus the Tigers, to not only end the 2017 season as the country's lone unbeaten team but to also prove that the American Athletic Conference is indeed a powerful one despite its exclusion from the Power 5.
"We thank the doubters because that's what makes us work harder," Anderson said. "Just being able to prove people wrong is really what we're looking for. ... This is the biggest stage for me as well as a lot of the other players, so us being able to perform will show the nation that we're ready to go."
One Knight who won't be ready for the bowl game is left tackle Aaron Evans. The first-team all-conference selection at left tackle has decided to undergo surgery for an injury that has been bothering him since last season. Evans, before making a final decision, discussed his situation with his teammates, who told him to do what is best for him. Miller said he told Evans to prioritize his future over one game. Jake Brown is being kicked over from left guard to fill in for Evans. Brown's move will open up a spot for Sam Jackson or Tyler Hudanick at guard. The Tigers rank among the nation's top 25 in scoring defense, total defense and sacks, but Miller is confident that the new-look O-line will be up for the challenge.
"As far as how we've grown this year as an offensive line, we've been able to adapt to different situations and adapt to anything that's put in front of us," he said. "Adversity hasn't really affected us. It's another challenge; that's all it is. We're just going to overcome it."
From Hurricane Irma to the late-season storm of coaching rumors and everything in between, the Knights have been overcoming challenges all year long. The Auburn Tigers are next -- and last -- on the list.