Immediately following the UCF Knights’ heartbreaking loss of star quarterback McKenzie Milton, I was going on preview blogs arguing that Central Florida wouldn’t really benefit from a College Football Playoff bid. Milton, the Knights’ most dynamic playmaker (and emotional leader) suffered a scary leg injury against South Florida in a November rivalry game, and freshman backup Darriel Mack Jr. went only 5-of-14 in relief.
UCF went on to win 38-10 thanks to its terrific defense. But without Milton, the Knights would be lucky just to win the AAC. Playing in the 4-team playoff without their starting QB would have humiliated the proud mid-major program.
The AAC Championship Game wasn’t the greatest college scrum of all time. After all it was only Memphis, a mid-tier FBS contender that was only in Orlando thanks to NFL-caliber running back Darrell Henderson, standing in the Knights’ way. Yet even the Tigers appeared to be too much for the shocked and discouraged home team to handle. Mack Jr. made several unforced errors as Memphis ran out to a 17-point lead. But UCF put on an absolute clinic in the 2nd half, dominating a quality opponent as if it were a neighborhood prep-school patsy. The Knights won the 2nd half 35-3…and it didn’t feel that close.
Central Florida is a CFP-type team that won’t get the opportunity to play in the 4-team bracket thanks to a corrupt system. But high-rollers are still skeptical enough that the Knights are a solid moneyline underdog for the Fiesta Bowl. Vegas is giving the AAC representative (+240) on the ML and (+7.5) on the spread against the 3-loss LSU Tigers of the SEC.
Who: UCF Knights vs LSU Tigers
When: Tuesday, January 1st, 1 PM EST
Where: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, AZ
Lines: UCF (+7.5) vs LSU (-7.5) / O/U Total: (55)
There are reasonable arguments to be made as to why LSU is a true favorite against UCF. But the most-popular one is also the most absurd. “UCF hasn’t played anybody!” goes the cry of mainstream pundits such as Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN.
When a Group-of-5 team beats another one, the loser is trashed more than the winner is hailed. Cincinnati was a 1-loss team and considered to have a top-10 defense when the Bearcats met UCF in November. The AAC champs slaughtered them 38-13, holding QB Desmond Ritter to less than 5 yards per pass attempt. Athletic senior lineman Titus Davis posted 4 tackles-for-loss.
But no sir, UCF hasn’t played anybody. For instance, the toughest team the Knights had to play in the AAC was Cincinnati. And we know Cincinnati isn’t any good, because UCF beat them 38-13. It’s like a mobius loop of moose-crap.
By the way, UCF also held Pittsburgh’s vaunted ground game without a 50-yard rusher in a 45-14 beatdown. That’s Pittsburgh…a division-winner from a Power-5 league.
Central Florida has reached the level of a contending team from the SEC or the ACC. It doesn’t mean that the Knights will beat LSU. But the burden-of-proof should be on handicappers to prove that Louisiana State has what it takes to beat a team like UCF, not the other way around.
There’s a lot to like about the 2018-19 LSU Tigers. Ed Orgeron is a fantastic gridiron coach who will have the squad well-prepared for battle at the Big Toaster in Arizona. The Tigers whipped Georgia, Miami and Mississippi State, and were considered a national-title hopeful in mid-season. Quarterback Joe Burrow finished 12 games with only 4 picks. Nick Brosette ran for almost 1000 yards and 14 touchdowns behind a powerful run-blocking OL. Devin White is an NFL linebacker, and safety Grant Delpit snagged 5 interceptions.
But almost every time LSU faced an elite FBS squad, major problems arose, mostly at QB. Burrow tried to beat Alabama by standing in the pocket holding the ball for 10 seconds at a time. That (ahem) clever tactic earned the Tigers a 29-0 home loss to the Crimson Tide. A few weeks prior, Burrow was picked-off twice by the Florida Gators as the team lost 27-19 despite a poor passing day from Florida QB Feleipe Franks.
Of concern is the fact that LSU has given up more sacks than the edge-rush has produced, and that only a single receiver (Justin Jefferson) has more than 20 catches on the season. The Tigers struggled to beat lowly Arkansas, and gave up 330 yards passing to someone named J’Mar Smith from Louisiana Tech.
Fans headed to Glendale are probably in for a treat. Despite his inexperience, Mack Jr. is a faster and more dynamic QB than Burrow, who too-often “burrows” into the ground when faced with a quality pass rush from an opposing defense.
Titus Davis will work to collapse the LSU pocket, and defensive back Richie Grant could cause havoc for LSU in coverage and as a streaky-fast blitzer. If the Tigers respond with a big pass rush of their own, the Knights will fight back by sending 1000-yard rusher Greg McCrae up the middle.
While the favorites will be motivated to play hard, UCF has additional motivation.
From the underdog’s POV the 2019 Fiesta Bowl is a virtual qualification-game for 2019-20 College Football Playoff. Win this one, and UCF will have 2 bowl victories in a row over powerful SEC teams. Go unbeaten and win the AAC again next year, and there won’t be enough strings in the world for Power-5 power-brokers to pull to keep the Knights out of the 4-team CFP bracket a year from now.
It’s a rare opportunity to silence the critics by beating one of the nation’s best programs with a backup QB behind center. And the Knights might just pull it off.
Will the Tigers be the next SEC power to fall to UCF on New Year’s Day? At (+240) payoff odds, there are a hell of a lot worse gambles on the betting board. Underdog-to-cover is also a great pick at (+7.5).