Scott Frost will coach one more game for UCF before heading off to Nebraska, but his vaunted offense will be tested against Auburn’s staunch defense.
Undefeated UCF will take on almost-Playoff participant Auburn in the 2017 Peach Bowl. The Knights finished the regular season 12-0 as the American Athletic Conference champion, the No. 12 team in the nation, and participants of the Group of Five’s New Years Six bowl thanks to its high-flying offense. No. 7 Auburn narrowly missed out on a Playoff invitation after it fell, 28-7, to Georgia in the SEC championship. Now these two teams will look to finish their season on a high note with a victory in Atlanta.
Storylines Heading Into The Game
1. Scott Frost Takes Head Coaching Job at Nebraska, Will Coach UCF in Peach Bowl - Late during UCF’s 62-55 double-overtime win against Memphis in the ACC championship, news broke that head coach Scott Frost had accepted the same job at his alma mater, Nebraska. Those reports turned out to be true, and Frost was introduced as the new head coach of the Cornhuskers the next day. As the days went by, rumors swirled about whether Frost would pull double duty: beginning his efforts at Nebraska in terms of recruiting and working with players, and also coaching his Knights in the Peach Bowl. As it turns out, Frost will finish what he started for UCF. The 42-year-old inherited a dreadful 0-12 team as a first-time head coach, and in two years turned the Knights into an undefeated offensive juggernaut. Hopefully he wasn’t too distracted by his new job properly plan for and coach in the bowl game.
2. Auburn Falls to Georgia in SEC Title Game, Misses Out on Playoff - Auburn walked into the SEC championship as the No. 2 team in the nation and with a clear path to becoming the first-ever two-loss to enter the Playoff. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they were mauled by the Dawgs, falling to Georgia, 28-7. Auburn managed just 145 passing yards and 259 total yards, converted only four third-down attempts, and turned the ball over twice during the game. First-team All-SEC running back Kerryon Johnson was limited to just 44 yards on 13 carries, partly due to lingering injuries suffered against Alabama the week prior, and partly due to Georgia’s defensive dominance. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham completed only 50.0% of his passes on 4.5 yards per attempt. All in all, it was a miserable day for the Tigers. They will need to return to form to finish the season strong and grab a win.
3. Gus Malzahn Signs Extension to Remain at Auburn - Instead of heading to Arkansas as some expected he might, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn inked a seven-year, $49 million deal to stay at Auburn for the foreseeable future. Arkansas had reportedly offered Malzahn a lucrative deal, and it is at least somewhat surprising that he turned it down because of his deep-rooted ties to the state of Arkansas. Malzahn grew up in the Arkansas, played at the University of Arkansas for two seasons as a walk-on before transferring to Henderson State University (also in Arkansas), spent the first 15 years of his coaching career as a high school coach at several Arkansas schools, coached at the University of Arkansas in 2006, and was the head coach at Arkansas State in 2012 before heading to Auburn. Alas, Malzahn opted to remain with the Tigers, and the stability could conceivably help Auburn to continue to compete with Alabama and the loaded SEC West.
49.4 - UCF’s average points scored per game, best in the nation by more than a point. The Knights win on offense and offense alone, and that hasn’t been a problem all year. UCF can move the ball and score in any way shape or form. Quarterback McKenzie Milton is second in the nation in yards per attempt, second in completion percentage, and fifth in passing touchdowns. The Knights also rush for 201.2 yards per game, 33rd in the nation, and are tied for seventh with 38 rushing touchdowns. As a unit, UCF ranks second in offense S&P+, behind only Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense. This team can gash you through the air and on the ground, has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, and can score in a hurry. The Knights will have a tough assignment against Auburn’s defense, by far the best defense they have faced this season. They will need their offense to fire on all cylinders to win this game prove to everyone that the Group of Five matters on the national stage.
16.8 - Auburn’s defense-specific adjusted scoring average, fifth in the FBS. Speaking of that Auburn defense, it’s very good. In addition to having the fifth-best overal defense by S&P+, the Tigers rank 10th in scoring defense, 14th in total defense, 13th in pass defense, 32nd in rush defense, and t-18th in sacks. The No. 1 most-telling statistic about Auburn’s defense for this game, however, is its passing yards per attempt allowed: 5.9, seventh in the country. UCF’s Milton has been both one of the nation’s most potent and efficient quarterbacks all season long, but now he is run up against a defense that seems perfectly designed to slow him down. The best defense by yards per attempt allowed that the Knights have faced this season was USF, which ranks 23rd, and they still managed 49 points and 373 yards through the air. But Auburn is a different animal. UCF will have to earn every yard it gains in this one.
262.8 - UCF’s passing yards allowed per game, 111th in the country. The Knights offense is phenomenal, but their defense is mediocre. It ranks 53rd in scoring defense and 78th in defense S&P+, not exactly dominant numbers. UCF’s passing defense, though, is its main weakness, and Auburn has a quarterback in Jarrett Stidham with the ability to sling it. Stidham isn’t asked to throw the ball too much, but he still threw for 2,827 yards on 8.7 yards per attempt, completed 66.7% of his passes, and tossed 17 touchdowns against just four interceptions. None of those numbers jump off the page the way Milton’s or Baker Mayfield’s passing stats do, but Stidham mostly played against stout SEC defenses and proved himself a capable passer time and again. If he’s able to get hot against a UCF defense that has failed to stop many teams from moving the ball through the air, the Knights could be in trouble.
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn - Kerryon Johnson is vital to Auburn’s success, and despite nagging rib and shoulder injuries, will reportedly play in the Peach Bowl. Johnson having a strong showing doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win, nor does a poor outing ensure a loss; however, how Johnson performs in a game is generally a good indicator of whether Auburn wins. Johnson did not play in the loss to Clemson, and in the loss to Georgia he was hampered by injuries and managed only 44 yards on 13 carries. But, in Auburn’s nine wins during which Johnson played, he averaged 124.4 rushing yards and 1.8 touchdowns on 24.3 carries with two total receiving touchdowns for good measure. The Tigers need Johnson healthy so that they can use him early and often in this game, dictate the pace of play, and control the tempo on offense.
McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF - The entirety of UCF’s chances to win this game rest on McKenzie Milton’s shoulders. As mentioned earlier, Milton ranks top-five in the nation in several passing categories. He is the engine that allows this offense to be as high-flying as it is. He can throw the ball deep with accuracy, has been responsible for less than three touchdowns in just two games this season, and can even run with the ball when needed. He is the second leading rusher on the team and has seven rushing touchdowns so far this season. If he doesn’t show up or is strangled by Auburn’s defense, the Knights don’t stand a chance.
Why Auburn Wins
Auburn shouldn’t have too much trouble putting points on the board. UCF’s defense hasn’t been able to slow down the better offenses it has faced. The Tigers rarely blow the doors off of anyone, but Stidham and Johnson should combine for a strong performance. Then it comes down to Auburn’s defense, the strength of this team, slowing down the mighty UCF offense.
The Tigers are stingy against both the run and the pass but have shown an affinity for shutting down opposing quarterbacks, allowing just 177.8 passing yards per game and 5.9 yards per attempt. With outside linebacker Jeff Holland (9.0 sacks, 12.0 tackles for loss) breathing down his neck and defensive back Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean locking it down in the secondary, Milton will have an extremely difficult time throwing the ball. If they can get the stops – they have the talent to do so – the Tigers will win this game.
Why UCF Wins
UCF wins this game if, despite the disparity in talent, the offense can put up a ton of points. The Tigers haven’t allowed more than 28 points in a game all year, but that will have to change for the Knights to win because it isn’t realistic to expect UCF’s defense to be able to come up with a significant amount of stops. If they can buck all relevant statistical data, season-long trends, and conventional wisdom and somehow hold Auburn to just a few scores, then obviously the Knights will be in good shape. That just isn’t likely, though.
So, as it has all year, it comes down to the offense. Head coach Scott Frost, in his final game before heading to Lincoln full-time, will need to scheme some ways to beat the Auburn defense and crack 30 points. Don’t be shocked if UCF breaks out more than one gadget play during the game to try and catch the Tigers off balance, nor should anyone be surprised to see the Knights continue to take shots down the field, even if they aren’t landing early. It’s going to take a gargantuan effort, but perhaps UCF has it in them to run up the scoreboard and pull this off.
College football is great when the little guy beats the big dog in a bowl game. Boise State over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl is arguably the greatest college football game of all time. But I don’t see the upset happening in this one. Scott Frost’s impending and partially started departure will likely steal some bandwidth from both the coaches and players at UCF; the Knights defense will almost certainly cede 30 or more points to the Tigers; and Auburn’s defense is just too talented for UCF to overcome. Expect some flashes by the Knights, but the most likely result in this game is a methodical beat down by the Tigers.
Auburn wins, 38-21.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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