The UCF Knights face the Duke Blue Devils Wednesday afternoon in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Maryland. It’s the first-ever meeting between these two schools, and we’re getting together around the fire for one more UCF Football Roundtable to discuss the game.
Let’s gather ‘round:
Does this game matter in terms of evaluating UCF’s 2022 season as a whole?
Andrew: Many fans will say yes, but the answer is no. For decades, bowl games were nothing but exhibition games with national champions being named before the games were ever played. That eventually changed, but with the rise of players transferring and sitting out postseason games, bowl games outside of the College Football Playoff(and their affiliated bowls) don’t carry the same value as they used to.
With that said, UCF finished runner-up in the AAC. They were selected to finish third in the preseason poll, so they did as well as expected. While winning the game will get UCF to ten wins and maybe a top 25 finish along with a trophy, it doesn’t really change the rest of the season.
Bryson: The only reason the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl became a major sticking point in evaluating UCF’s entire 2021 season came from the unique circumstances surrounding its opponent. The Knights’ 2022 bowl game does not have such a thing.
The major aspects of this season’s legacy have already wrapped themselves up. Mikey Keene is in the transfer portal and the team ended its time in the AAC with losses to ECU and Navy, yet still made it to the conference championship game in which they lost to Tulane. This bowl matchup against Duke, barring a close and exciting game, will likely serve as an epilogue to this season of transition.
Kyle: Slightly. I feel like getting a 10th win is important for any college team if they can do it. Evaluating 2022 as a season (whether it should be this way or not) will be seen as a team that should have won the American Athletic Conference or one that pulled smoke and mirrors in the first Tulane game.
People want to make this season about Mikey Keene and what it “could have been”. If somehow UCF wins this game against Duke as a Power 5 program, it will be a validation for this coaching staff and what they “could have done” if they weren’t battling injury at the quarterback position, for better or worse.
Jeff: It depends. If UCF wins, yeah! 10 wins is a one-game improvement over last year and the first ten-win season under Coach Malzahn. If not, then no, because a bunch of key guys left via the portal and we played a good team in the bowl game that suffered all of its four losses by just one possession.
I personally see this season as a success no matter what. UCF contended for a conference title and had a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl. That was the goal at the start of the year. The AAC title game didn’t work out, but we were there, and often those games are coin flips anyway. So the bowl game to me is just whipped cream on the hot chocolate.
Which transfer portal departure is most concerning regarding this game?
Andrew: I’ve always said losing defensive back Davonte Brown is the biggest hit because of the other losses in the position group. Losing Newt Wilson to the NFL early compounds an already thin position defensive backfield. On the two-deep for the bowl game, UCF only lists three players for their cornerback position. Let’s hope for no injuries.
Bryson: Linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense, and the Knights will be without one such player for the Military Bowl that was also a team captain. While Jason Johnson may have had the better year statistically, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste was still tied for 2nd place on the team in tackles and was a leadership presence considering his team captain title.
Walter Yates, who is slated to start with Johnson at LB for the bowl game, is a worthy player to fill in as a starter, but behind them are the true freshman Kam Moore and Quade Mosier, the latter who has not played in a game all season. This is another position group that would do good to stay healthy for the whole game.
Kyle: That depends on the health of John Rhys Plumlee. If he stays healthy, then JJB is the correct answer as a single player goes in my opinion. (Drew is right that the DB group on the whole is the position group most impacted by departures overall).
If UCF needs a backup QB to enter the game and must depend on Thomas Castellanos to compete against the Blue Devils, the fanbase will miss Mikey Keene more now than ever. Ryan O’Keefe is definitely an honorable mention, but since Castellanos has given evidence that he needs another offseason to ready himself for meaningful snaps, the Knights will need JRP to stay healthy for this game for more than any other in 2022.
Jeff: Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste. He has been such a key leader for the defense the last few years, not to mention his productivity (2nd on the team in tackles) and pass-rushing ability. We could definitely use him against Duke to keep Riley Leonard in check.
How about the QB situation? Do we expect this to be all JRP or should we expect to see Tommy Castellanos?
Andrew: It’s expected that John Rhys Plumlee’s leg should be better after some rest time. How he does will determine how the team does. How the team does will impact how much of Tommy Castellanos we might see. Gus Malzahn will likely find a way to get TC on the field here and there, but unless the game becomes one-sided in either direction, expect to see JRP on the field the vast majority of the time. If the game remains close, JRP might play exclusively.
Bryson: The team has already burned Thomas Castellanos’ redshirt. While technically appearing in the Military Bowl would not have affected that anyway thanks to an NCAA blanket waiver, Malzahn likely wants to try to get Castellanos some bowl-game reps to further his development. However, whether he can do that depends on two factors: JRP’s health and the state of the game. If JRP is still not in the right state to play effectively or gets injured all over again, Castellanos will head in. If the game becomes a blowout, then Castellanos could likely see action in the game’s later stages.
Kyle: Putting TC in this game is minimal reward compared to the risk. In the unlikely event the Knights somehow slap Duke around and gain a three-score lead late in the game, Castellanos entering the game is a bad idea.
Does he get some “big game” experience? Sure. But there’s also a chance he gets hurt and kills his ability to learn in the off-season or he makes a key error to lose the game and destroys his confidence moving forward. Both of those things are a disaster for what is getting to be a seemingly thin quarterback room at UCF.
Jeff: I’m thinking this is JRP all the way today. He’s had plenty of time to rest and heal up, and Duke’s defense is pretty dreadful against the pass (109th in FBS in pass yards allowed). After JRP threw the ball remarkably well in the second half against Tulane, I suspect we’ll see him attack through the air a bit more, hopefully by throwing on the run, which is his forte. As far as Tommy is concerned, I suspect we might see him in goal-line situations to take some of the hit mileage off Plumlee (think Joey Gatewood last year), but other than that, not much.
Bowls are weird, and UCF is playing someone they’ve never played before. What do we not know about Duke that worries or encourages you?
Andrew: How do UCF’s remaining players match up against Duke? The Knights have gotten younger and less experienced. WR Xavier Townsend has slid into the starting WR3 spot. LB Kam Moore is going to see more action and the Henderson twins, Ja’Cari and Demari, are on the two-deep in the defensive backfield. Expect them all to play. With defensive coordinator Travis Williams done and Addison Williams stepping in, there might be some on-the-fly changes.
Bryson: I have to agree with Drew. We don’t know how Duke’s players will react to UCF’s players that will get increased playing time. On the one hand, they have less game film to go on with them, but on the other, will the younger Knights’ talent be able to get them past Duke’s more experienced players? We shall see.
Kyle: What we don’t know about playing Duke is if UCF has gotten themselves where they need to be to compete with a Power 5 team in the trenches with their offensive line. They’ve gotten to gel together and it showed in the Cincinnati game in the Bounce House. But the Navy loss exposed this group in a way we hadn’t seen since the loss against Lousiville.
If this O-Line shows them to compete with Duke’s defensive front, that will mark maturity that is a tribute to this group and their coaches — the kinda thing that attracts key pieces in the transfer portal.
Jeff: How will UCF hold up in the trenches after a full season? As Kyle said, the key to Power Five play is withstanding the physical grind over the course of the season with your depth, and depth has been a concern over the last couple of years. My hope is the extra prep time will help get everyone healthy and studied up for Duke’s tendencies. Of course, Duke also has had time to prep for us, and their guys are on scholarship too. That’s the beauty of bowl games — You see matchups you don’t see often and let the chips fall.
Andrew: UCF has experienced a number of changes since the end of the regular season. They’ve lost both coordinators and three valuable starters in the aforementioned Brown, LB Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, and WR Ryan O’Keefe. The future begins today, but the team doesn’t have as much experience playing without these players. Duke 27-24.
Bryson: Duke already comes into this game with a slight advantage thanks to losing fewer players via the transfer portal. Head Coach Mike Elko has gotten this team back to its first bowl game since 2018, so the players that have hung around the program since then would likely be gunning to go out on a high note. So, I expect this to be close and far from a perfect game, but I’ll be more optimistic. UCF wins, 24-23.
Kyle: 24-21 Blue Devils
Jeff: Let’s get WILD! UCF 44, Duke 41