The #22 UCF Knights and #17 Tulane Green Wave face off in New Orleans in a match-up of the top two teams in The American and only two G5 teams in the CFP rankings.
The winner has the inside track to hosting the American Championship and a New Year’s Six bowl bid.
Our staff puts their heads together to discuss the game in this week’s Roundtable.
Let’s get this out of the way: Mikey or JRP?
Jeff: I’m looking at Tulane’s weaknesses on defense, of which there are few. They’re 16th in FBS against the pass, and 42nd against the run. So if the weak spot is on the ground, then John Rhys Plumlee — IF HEALTHY — might give UCF the best opportunity to win, via his legs.
Two ways he can do that: (1) Obviously, with his speed through designed runs, and (2) making things happen if a play breaks down, particularly on third downs, where Tulane is very good (24th in FBS on 3rd down defense).
Kyle: For my money, it’s whoever will put up fewer mistakes against the opposing defense. Yes, I’m saying UCF should start different quarterbacks depending on the week. Typically not a great practice for a football team, but the Knights have proven that this year is far from typical. Heck, the parity throughout the nation in college football has proven that things aren’t normal in the sport.
Considering how few sacks Tulane has a team, this would be a great week to start the less mobile of the two — Mikey Keene. Keene is the more accurate passer to connect on the big plays in the air. That being said, as much as coach Malzahn threw Joey Gatewood in as a change-of-pace quarterback in 2021, why wouldn’t he use John Rhys Plumlee in that capacity? He moves better and passes better than Gatewood by a large margin. . . so maybe the answer is both? After all, football is a team sport.
Andrew: This is a divisive question. Many fans have dug in their heels for one quarterback or another. This skews their perception of who they feel is the better quarterback.
Mikey Keene has been the hot hand as of late, there is no doubt about it. He’s an excellent game manager that allows his skilled players to use their talents. He’s shown decisiveness in picking his targets and anticipates the location of the receiver. John Rhys Plumlee is another running back on the field due to his ability to tuck and run. His throwing accuracy and his timing are not as sound as Keene’s, but if the offensive line is struggling with pass protection, he offers a better ability to make plays out of nothing.
While Gus Malzahn has said he wanted to maintain Keene’s redshirt, his more traditional pocket passing might be a better complement for an already running back-heavy team provided the offensive line gives him the time he needs.
Is Tulane really this good?
Jeff: We don’t really know yet. The best teams they’ve played by record are Kansas State (6-3), ECU (6-4). Their lone loss was to a 5-4 Southern Miss team at home. We’ll find out today and in the next two weeks, as they face UCF (7-2) and SMU (5-4) at home, and wrap at Cincinnati (8-2).
Kyle: Yes they are, but I don’t think this Tulane team would be ranked this high last year. Parity being what it is in college football as a whole — let alone the American Conference — brings the top of the mountain a bit closer to the base. Yes, Tulane could beat a number of ACC teams and some other lower teams in other conferences. But could they be expected to survive in the SEC, for example? No.
Tulane is a balanced football team that isn’t great at one particular thing but is quite solid across the board. Their versatility this their true strength.
Andrew: Under Willie Fritz, Tulane’s culture has been sculpted as scrappy, even when they’re not as good as the team across from them. They rise up to their opponents. Well, now that team has hit a new peak in talent and experience and we are seeing it on the field. Michael Pratt has always been a good quarterback who avoids making too many mistakes, but he’s improved this efficiency even more so. As his stats shows, he’s doing pretty well.
Every good team needs a marquee win to be taken seriously. For Tulane, it was at Kansas State. UCF’s is Cincinnati. That’s why both are ranked how they are. This is the first game in over 70 years that Tulane and their opponent are ranked. They were still in the SEC when this last happened. Not only are they a good team, but they can see the prize they’re aiming for and will be jazzed for this game.
How should UCF attack Tulane’s top-ranked defense?
Jeff: Hit them in the face and keep hitting them. If their weak spot is against the run, then UCF needs to test that Tulane front seven with heavy doses of Isaiah Bowser and R. J. Harvey inside, and then take advantage of them in misdirection.
Bizarrely, in Tulane’s only loss to Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles were out-gained 451-253, and Tulane won the time of possession battle 36:00-24:00. K-State out-rushed the Wave in their 17-10 loss to Tulane but was 2/15 on third down. I still feel as though Tulane hasn’t been challenged up front yet, so I’d like to find out.
Kyle: Meet them with balance without making mistakes. Whoever makes the start at quarterback has struggled with taking care of the football early in past games. But bringing out Isaish Bowser at running back to start with improves protection for the quarterback so that the passing can happen. Anything that can get UCF’s athletes in space at any position is the key.
Whether it’s Ryan O’Keefe, Kobe Hudson, R.J. Harvey, or Johnny Richardson as second running backs on the field or tight Alec Holler hurtling over another guy that tries to tackle him low, give the skill guys a chance to make plays.
Andrew: UCF will continue to use the run to open up the pass, which is fine. UCF offers three different running backs with three different strengths. The big key will be how the offensive line plays. They’ve shown material improvement over the last couple of games, but they’re the lynchpin. If the line does its job and the running game can be established, the passing game can go to work with less pressure. The passing game’s strength is in the receivers’ ability to create yards after the catch, so the short passing game(<15yds in the air) should be able to move the sticks and keep drives going.
Given the magnitude of this game and the quality of the next two opponents, how much pressure is there on UCF Saturday?
Jeff: Plenty. this is a road game against a hungry, well-coached opponent. The path to the AAC Championship is laid out on the other end of this one, with Navy (3-6) and USF (1-8) remaining on the slate. You’re crazy if you don’t think the players know this. So how they deal with pressure this late in the season is the question. They dealt with it against Cincinnati with the season on the line. Let’s see how they deal with it on the road.
Kyle: For all intents and purposes, this is a defacto semifinal game for the AAC Championship. If UCF wins, they take control and merely need to handle business closing out Navy and USF. If they don’t, they’ll ironically need Tulane’s help to beat Cincinnati to get the Tulane rematch on the road.
Andrew: This game is obviously huge. If UCF loses, their chances of getting to the AAC game are severely diminished. UCF can’t afford any mistakes at this point because if they do, they are no longer in control of their destiny.
However, this game isn’t as big for Tulane as their matchup with Cincinnati when you think about it. Regardless of how this game plays out, Tulane is playing for something against Cincinnati. It’s hosting rights for the AAC Championship Game or access to the game.
Jeff: Tight, but I think UCF controls the line of scrimmage late. 32-26 UCF.
Kyle: In UCF’s closest game of the year, they’ll sneak away with a win 31-28.
Andrew: I’m sure I’ll catch some flak, but I have Tulane 34-31. I’d like to be wrong. This is a home game for Tulane and UCF’s weakness is in their pass defense, which is a focus of the Green Wave offense.