WHO: No. 8 UCF (12-0) vs. No. 11 LSU (9-3)
WHAT: The 48th PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
WHEN: 1:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, AZ
THE SKINNY: Once again undefeated, UCF is looking to end the season with a win in a big bowl game against a team from the SEC. And if they do, get ready for another offseason full of conversation and debate about whether or not UCF’s claim to a second-straight national championship has any merit. Of course, to entertain that idea, UCF will have to take down LSU without star quarterback McKenzie Milton.
UCF has talented players capable of making some plays happen even without Milton. Freshman Darriel Mack Jr. continues to play in place of the injured Milton at quarterback, and he is capable of making some plays himself. But he’ll rely on the running attack of Greg McCrae and Adrian Killins to help take some of the pressure off of him against a stingy LSU defense. LSU has held their opponents to fewer than 20 points in four of their final six games. The only games allowing more than 20 points were against Alabama and Texas A&M, a crazy overtime marathon of a game to close out the regular season. Points could be difficult to come by for the Knights.
LSU’s offense should focus on wearing down a UCF defense that has had its issues this season. A shootout is not the type of game the Tigers want to get into. Instead, managing the clock with efficient drives led by Joe Burrow should be the key to a win for LSU. This should be a game dictated by LSU’s running game with Nick Brosette leading the charge. If the scoring gets out of hand, LSU may not be equipped to keep up the pace. Keeping the game from getting to that kind of tempo will be the key for LSU. Expect a relatively low-scoring Fiesta Bowl.
THE LINE: LSU -7.5
THE PREDICTION: LSU 24, UCF 16
UCF has won all 12 games they have played this season because they have a distinct advantage with the talent on the roster. At 12-0 with an American Athletic Conference championship, the Knights are heading to the Peach Bowl to take on SEC West Division champion Auburn. When the two collide, UCF running back Adrian Killins will hope to back up his words with his performance on the field.
Speaking to the media this week, Killins said Auburn has not seen speed like the kind UCF will bring to the game in Atlanta on January 1. Defying the popular narrative over the years about how much speed the SEC has, Killins does not seem to be too impressed.
“SEC football, they don’t have a lot of speed, honestly,” Killins told The Orlando Sentinel. “So, Auburn hasn’t seen any speed like we have here.”
It’s worth noting that Auburn has faced Clemson this season. Just to throw that out there. But that said, is the SEC speed narrative a thing of the past? Killins suggests the SEC is more about being physical and not so much looking to strike quickly. But the SEC has had some fast-moving offenses, including this season with Missouri and, of course, Auburn. But in terms of raw speed from the players, maybe that is where UCF will look to create an advantage against the Tigers.
“I will say they’re in for a rude awakening, because UCF football, we’re UCF fast and UCF fierce,” Killins said.
And with that, Killins has just given Auburn’s defense some good bulletin board material ahead of the Peach Bowl.
Saturday’s game between Maryland and UCF took a toll on the injury report for the Big Ten’s Terrapins, but UCF took a blow as well. Now, the Knights will have to play the remainder of the season with a new starting running back.
Jawon Hamilton had started UCF’s first two games of the season and accumulated 11 starts in his time at UCF, but a leg injury in the first quarter of Saturday’s game led to surgery and a premature end to his 2017 season. Hamilton shared the news of his surgery on his Facebook page, saying his surgery went well and already focusing on the fact he will have three years of eligibility to use. Hamilton will be eligible for three years because he will qualify for a medical redshirt with his season-ending injury coming so early in the year.
Hamilton rushed for 495 yards and four touchdowns last year but never got a chance to have the impact he was expected to have in the offense this season. UCF blew out their first opponent of the year, FIU, and allowed Hamilton to get some early rest, and his injury occurred in the first quarter against Maryland after a storm-altered layoff interfered with UCF’s football schedule.
Junior Taj McGowan and sophomore Adrian Killins now step in as the running backs that will fill the void. Neither is designated as the starter over the other on the depth chart this week, which means head coach Scott Frost either wants to keep both involved or see which one proves capable of carrying the load moving forward. McGowan rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns in 2016, and Killins had a team-high 6.5 rushing yards per attempt in 2016.
The other option available would be 6′-0″ 248-lb freshman Cordarrian Richardson. The big freshman has carried the football 11 times for 39 yards and a touchdown in the early stages of the season. He may not be ready for full-time rushing duties just yet, but he certainly brings a sizable advantage in short0-down situations with a little help from his blockers up front. Don’t be surprised if Frost finds ways to get him involved in the game plan as the Knights potentially go with a bit of a running back by committee in the next few weeks.
UCF hosts Memphis this week in a key conference battle, with the Tigers owning the fifth-best rushing defense in the AAC coming in. After that, UCF’s next two games are against Cincinnati and East Carolina. The Bearcats and Pirates have really struggled against the run so far this season, with 19 rushing touchdowns combined and an average of 264.0 and 274.5 rushing yards per game allowed, respectively. That would seem to suggest UCF has a good three-week stretch to figure out how best to use the running backs before having to make any final decisions for the second half of the season.
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight has shown why Jim Harbaugh has so much faith in him leading the Wolverine son offense, even if it is against UCF at home. Speight has thrown three touchdown passes, including two to tight end Jake Butt, in the first half to help lead Michigan to a rather easy 34-7 halftime lead.
Amazingly, Michigan actually lost one yard and was forced to punt after just three plays on their first offensive possession, but the Wolverines took advantage of good field position on their next three possessions which all started no farther than Michigan’s 43-yard line (and twice in UCF territory). All three drives ended in touchdowns for the Wolverines.
UCF’s lone strike int he first half resulted when Adrian Killins got a chance to show off some speed as he raced to the right edge of the line and made his way 87-yards down the sideline. Nobody would catch him. UCF will need much more of that and some defensive stops if they want to make things remotely interesting in the second half.