For the second straight year, No. 9 UCF (11-0, 8-0 AAC) will enter the AAC Championship Game without a loss on their record, putting them one win away from a likely trip to a New Years Six bowl game. The Knights finished off their regular season with a clean 11-0 record after securing a 38-10 win on the road against South Florida (7-5, 3-5 AAC) on Friday. The win, the 24th straight for the program, came at a price for UCF, however, as starting quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered what appeared to be a severe leg injury in the first half that required him to be carted off the field for further medical treatment.
Coming off the bench to lead the offense for UCF in the absence of Milton was Darriel Mack Jr., but the Knights could get by with the running game and a strong defensive effort to carry the load. Greg McRae rushed for 163 yards and three touchdowns to power UCF past the Bulls. As a team, UCF rushed for 325 yards. McCrae’s third touchdown run, a 31-yard run, essentially slammed the door shut on South Florida after Charlie Strong made a puzzling decision to punt away from the USF 43-yard line on 4th & 1 with USF trailing 24-10 in the fourth quarter. Four plays later came McCrae’s long touchdown run. UCF outscored South Florida 14-0 in the fourth quarter and 21-7 after halftime.
Milton’s injury was severe enough to prevent him from returning to the game, but there was no updated on his status moving forward. However, odds are he will not be available next week for the conference championship game. As such, how UCF fares without their MVP quarterback in the near future will be scrutinized heavily as UCF is sitting in position to not only compete for a chance to play in a big bowl game, but how this potentially impacts their standing in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee should a few breaks open things up for UCF down the line. But in order for that to matter, UCF has one more game to win first.
South Florida played the entire game without Blake Barnett, who was banged up himself. That led the Bulls to split the duties between Chris Oladokun and Brett Kean, but neither was able to spark the South Florida offense against a determined UCF defensive effort. Running back Johnny Ford had 16 carries for 120 yards, but that was the highlight of the offense for the Bulls. South Florida was stooped twice on fourth downs, including one at the UCF three-yard line that was followed by a 97-yard UCF touchdown drive in the first half. Getting stuffed twice on fourth down may have led Strong to decide to settle for a field goal deep in UCF territory in the second quarter when a touchdown would have been much more important.
UCF will host Memphis in the AAC Championship Game next weekend in Orlando. The game is scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on Saturday, Dec. 1. The game will be a rematch of last year’s AAC Championship Game, won by UCF by a score of 62-55 in double overtime, and an earlier regular season meeting this year in Memphis won by UCF 31-30. A win by UCF next week at home will likely send UCF back to a New Years Six bowl, which would make the Knights the first Group of Five team to make consecutive New Years Six bowl trips in the College Football Playoff era.
South Florida will slump their way into the postseason after ending the season on a five-game losing skid. But the Bulls have enough wins to go to a bowl game, which will be determined at a later time.