The regular season is winding down and UCF finds itself in the unaccustomed role of potential spoiler instead of front-runner in the American Athletic Conference.
No. 7 Cincinnati (7-0, 5-0 AAC) visits the Knights (5-2, 4-2) in Orlando, Florida on Saturday, looking to remain unbeaten, ranked among the nation’s elite, and part of the conversation about whether the Bearcats are deserving of consideration for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
UCF has won 40 of 46 games since the start of the 2017 season, won two of the past three AAC championships, and appeared in a pair of New Year’s Six bowl games. Narrow conference losses to Cincinnati and Tulsa derailed the team’s chances to three-peat in 2019.
“UCF, to me, has been the most talented team in the league since I’ve been here. Our guys understand that,” said Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, who’s in his fourth season with the Bearcats.
“We know what we’re walking into, and the reality is they still have a championship and we don’t. … They’re still in a better place than we are,” Fickell added. “Our job is to get to where they have been. And we haven’t done that.”
The Bearcats beat the Knights 27-24 in Cincinnati last October, knocking UCF out of the Top 25. A UCF upset Saturday would keep their slim conference hopes alive, although they’d still need lots of outside help to sneak back in the race for a berth in next month’s league championship game.
“The kids understand the opportunity they have,” said UCF coach Josh Heupel, whose team leads the nation in total offense and has won three straight since suffering consecutive losses to Tulsa and Memphis.
“We need to be at our best,” Heupel added. “Nothing extraordinary. But we’ve got to do the ordinary things at a high level. … Cincinnati’s got our full attention, and we’ll be ready to play.”
Fickell, who has one of the top 10 defenses in the country, expects as much.
“After what we did last year … I know they’ve been waiting on this game,” the Cincinnati coach said. “They’ve been the team in the league. They know what it’s like. They’ve had everybody circling them on the schedule for the last three years. Our guys understand that. Our guys have got to be able to handle that.”
GABRIEL SHINES, TOO
Former Mililani star QB, Dillon Gabriel, leads the nation in passing at 396 yards per game, and the high-scoring Knights are averaging 619 yards total offense and 44 points a game. Gabriel has thrown for 23 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and the sophomore also benefits from a dominating ground attack featuring running backs Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae.
RIDDER ON THE RISE
Quarterback Desmond Ridder’s stock as a potential NFL draft pick is rising as the Bearcats blow through the AAC. Ridder threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns last week in Cincinnati’s rout of East Carolina and has accounted for 17 touchdowns in the past four games. The dual-threat QB has completed 66.7% of his passes for 1,483 yards and 14 touchdowns with six interceptions. He’s also carried the ball 53 times for 469 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s improved as a passer in his third year as the Bearcats’ starter and has the size (6-foot-4, 207 pounds) and athleticism to be an increasingly interesting prospect for NFL teams.
DEFENSE TURNS ON WHITE
Linebacker Jarell White has emerged as the leader of the AAC’s best defense and one of the Bearcats’ best players. The senior, playing a hybrid linebacker/safety position, leads the AAC with 9.3 tackles per game. The Cincinnati defense held East Carolina to 17 points and 293 total yards in a 55-17 rout last Saturday. White had seven tackles, including a sack, and scored his first career touchdown on a 26-yard interception return in the first quarter, earning Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors.