Each week, a few staff contributors will answer five questions regarding the upcoming events in UCF Knights sports. It’s a way to get the staff to come together as well as the rest of Knights Nation, to see if they agree or disagree with the crew at BGB.
1. How does it feel to be right back to where we were a year ago at a New Year’s 6 Bowl?
Jeff Sharon: Not as great, personally speaking. Last year at this time I was driving up to Atlanta with my 3-year-old son for the game. It was so worth it. This year it’s disappointing that UCF was shipped all the way out to Phoenix for reasons we’ve gone over ad nauseam. Like many UCF fans, I wish I could be out there too.
Of course, for the team, it’s amazing. After the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, you could have said it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and a lot of fans would have believed you. And here’s UCF with two NY6 bowl appearances in a row and three in the last six years. That speaks for itself.
Derek Warden: It feels right. We’re one of the best teams in the country, we should be in a NY6 bowl, if not the invitational.
Jeremy Brener: It feels great because it proves that last year was not a fluke. We are here to stay. I’m all about putting UCF on the highest pedestal we can to help show off how proud we are of our school and our football team.
Brian Murphy: Unexpected. I know many players on this team expected to be here, but as a person who openly said this team had a “zero point zero” percent chance of going undefeated again, this is a trip I didn’t think I’d be making. But yeah, I’m glad to be here. And the Knights deserve to be here, obviously.
Chris Carter: It feels like “Groundhog Day” to be honest. It’s been a year and another undefeated season, but it’s like nothing has really changed. We are still disrespected, still getting screwed by polls, and here we sit a year later, still a big underdog to an SEC team who thinks they are going to “put us in our place.” None of it matters though. We are just going to do we always do no matter what: Go 1-0 every week.
2. How will Darriel Mack Jr. respond to playing the best defense UCF has played in a real long time in LSU?
Jeff Sharon: The good things for DJ is (a) he’s had plenty of extra practice time and (b) three of LSU’s top corners and one of their top front seven guys are not playing. The bad news is it’s LSU, so those backups are probably NFL-level guys too, and they’ve had enough time to watch film on him. I think if he can withstand LSU’s initial charge on the first couple of possessions and not make mistakes as he did in the first half against Memphis (three fumbles), then once he settles in, he’ll be fine. Look for him to use his legs more than his arm early, a-la KZ last year vs. Auburn.
Derek Warden: I think he’ll do better than expected, especially with LSU missing some important defensive players.
Jeremy Brener: I don’t think he’s that nervous honestly. The Memphis game gave him a ton of confidence. He really doesn’t have anything to lose, which is the brilliant thing about being a backup quarterback. If you lose, you’re expected to because you’re the underdog and you’re not as good as McKenzie. If you win, all the glory goes to you.
Brian Murphy: I asked Mack if he expects to have any game-day jitters and he flatly said no, because he doesn’t get nervous before or during games. Assuming that’s actually true, that should really help him on this grand stage. Mack is also aware of just how fortunate he is to be in this position, this moment, with this team. I think that will also play in his favor since he seems determined to not throw away this shot.
Chris Carter: I think the best answer to this question is that it won’t all be on Darriel Mack Jr., so he will be just fine. Few people remember that McKenzie Milton’s 1st quarter vs. Auburn last year couldn’t have gone much worse, with him literally almost throwing up on the field with nerves. Mack will be just fine, especially with KZ there in his ear to keep him focused. As long as he prioritizes ball security, he will have a good game.
3. If UCF loses the game, what would be the reason?
Jeff Sharon: It wouldn’t be UCF - it would be LSU. They’re big, they’re fast, and they’re talented. On paper, LSU should win this game. But UCF has made a mockery of games played on paper for 25 games in a row now. If UCF falls, it won’t be because of one play. I think it would be a blowout where clearly LSU showed itself to be the more talented and better-prepared team on that field on that day.
Derek Warden: If we lose its because their offense just embarrasses our defense (which I don’t think happens).
Jeremy Brener: If the Knights lose, Nick Brossette will gash the defense so much that Mack and the crew on offense won’t be able to recover. It will be a shootout that they end up on the wrong side of.
Brian Murphy: The easy answer is turnovers. If Mack comes out and is loose with the ball much like he was early in the AAC title game, the Knights will not be able to recover against LSU.
But I really think this game is won or lost at the line of scrimmage. Both sides have stressed that beyond normal standards all week. Both sides want to run the ball and everyone knows it. Josh Heupel said Sunday that when it comes to running the rock, the Knights need to “pound it for four quarters.”
Both squads are prepared and eager for trench warfare — especially those who play along the line. Here’s what Titus Davis said about the likelihood of a line-of-scrimmage game earlier this week: “Honestly, this whole month, knowing the bowl game that we were going to be in, who we were going to play, knowing what we’re going to face, that’s what we’re preparing for. Looking forward to it.”
If the Knights can deal with the Tigers’ defensive front, that will give them a substantial advantage.
Chris Carter: If UCF happens to lose this game, it will be because they didn’t get the running game going and lost the turnover battle, and in doing so LSU kept our offense off the field for large stretches. UCF also can’t allow QB Joe Burrow to run free, which has been UCF’s Achilles’ Heel in past games. I don’t see it happening, but this is the only way they don’t win.
4. Who on defense needs to step up for the Knights in order to win?
Jeff Sharon: This game is going to be won or lost by UCF’s front seven. LSU prides itself on just bludgeoning you to death with their offensive line. So I’ll be watching Joey Connors and Trysten Hill. If they can get penetration and disrupt LSU’s running game like the D-Line did last year vs. Kerryon Johnson and Auburn, that bodes well for UCF.
Derek Warden: This is Trysten Hill’s game to show everyone what we know he can be: the dominant DT he is when he wants to be,like in the 2nd half of the AAC championship game.
Jeremy Brener: I think we are all in agreement that the D-Line needs to show up, so I’ll offer a different answer: Richie Grant. The DB’s are probably the superior unit on defense and they are the ones that make the most plays, and nobody in the secondary makes more plays than Grant. If he were to force a turnover or stop a huge offensive drive, it could motivate the entire team and push them towards another victory.
Brian Murphy: Anyone along the defense’s front four, but I will single out Trysten Hill. He needs to be the Grown Man that he was versus Memphis earlier this month. He was incredible against those Tigers and he will need to bring it against these Tigers. When he is really getting after it, he can shut down any ground attack. Without a run game, LSU doesn’t have a chance of keeping up.
Chris Carter: It’s all on the front 7. It UCF can shut down LSU’s running game like they did to Auburn last year, then LSU doesn’t have a chance of winning. Trysten Hill, Titus Davis and Randy Charlton will all be instrumental in getting penetration and taking away LSU’s best - and really their only - offensive game plan.
5. What will the final score be?
Jeff Sharon: People are going to hate me for this, but reverse psychology has worked for me so far this year. I’m taking LSU, 35-22. I want to be wrong so bad.
Derek Warden: Deja Vu, 34-27 (They get a late score to make it appear closer than it was).
Jeremy Brener: I say Knights 38, Tigers 31. The Knights are able to match up to the Tigers at the skill positions and they make it a shootout.
Brian Murphy: I’m often pessimistic (or realistic, depending on how you look at it). I thought UCF would lose to Auburn in the Peach Bowl and felt pretty comfortable with that prediction then. I didn’t think this team would go undefeated again. I thought they would lose to Memphis in October and December. I was wrong every time, but it’s what I honestly believed.
Here is also what I believe: UCF is better than LSU right now. They are deeper and more dangerous on offense. They are just as fast in many spots. The defense is probably close to equal considering that the Tigers’ defense is missing six starters. LSU is dealing with a bunch of distractions entering this game, I think there is still a huge chip on Knights’ shoulder. They feel like something still must be proven.
UCF wins, 34-23.
Chris Carter: UCF 31, LSU 24. “Groundhog Day,” remember?