This isn’t just any other matchup. The Cincinnati Bearcats are visiting the undefeated UCF Knights on Saturday with their American Athletic Conference title hopes hanging in the balance. Its a massive showdown between two of the best teams the league has to offer. Adding even more drama to the event is a national audience that will have its eyes on Orlando all day and into the night thanks to ESPN’s College GameDay.
While the uniqueness of this matchup is something to marvel at, the Bearcats need to pay close attention to all the details and all the individual competitions. Those listed below are just some of the most important, but not the only ones.
Cortez Broughton vs. Jordan Johnson
I hinted at this already in a Q&A with Black & Gold Banneret, which is SB Nation’s new UCF blog. You should go follow them. The Bearcats have a lot of strengths on defense but their greatest one is the defensive line where Broughton practices his trade. The senior defensive tackle has 15.5 tackles for loss, makes running between the tackles impossible and is a capable pass-rusher. With his skills on display, the Bearcats are allowing just a bit more than 100 yards per game — 102.8 to be exact — on the ground. That continues to be the best mark in the AAC. Aside from the run game, Broughton has helped lead a resurgent pass rush, as the Bearcats have already accumulated 24 sacks, which is twice as many as they had all last year.
Broughton and the Bearcats have faced plenty of good offensive lines, but none as good as the unit Johnson anchors at UCF. The Knights have allowed a total of nine sacks all year, while the line has been blocking for one of the best rushing attacks in the country. Johnson is at the center of it all, and I mean that literally. The 2017 all-AAC first teamer will be clashing with Broughton all game. Whoever gets the upper hand may get his team a win.
UC’s linebackers vs. UCF’s running backs
We already discussed UC’s great run defense and the challenge UCF’s productive run game presents. Part of the challenge is figuring out how to stop a variety of running backs, since the Knights have versatility up and down the backfield depth chart. Adrian Killins (1,089 all-purpose yards) is a menace in the open field with his ability to run and catch passes. Greg McCrae actually leads the team in rushing yardage (673 yards, 8.9 YPC) and is a threat to go to the end zone every play. Otis Anderson (524 all-purpose yards) is another guy who fits into the rushing and passing attack. With so many different options and so many different skill sets, its no wonder UCF’s offense has been so good.
In an ideal world, the Bearcats won’t let any of UCF’s backs get past the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, the question isn’t if Killins, McCrae or Anderson get to the second level, but when. With that written, it will fall on Bryan Wright, Perry Young, Jarell White and Malik Clements, among others, to close out and make tackles quickly. Its a tall task with how well UCF’s trio works in the open field, but its the task all the same.
Michael Warren vs. UCF’s run defense
UCF isn’t the only team with talent at running back. Warren may not be the pass-catcher that Killins is, but he knows how take a handoff and churn out yards and touchdowns. He’s the most important skill position player on the roster for the Bearcats, who lean more on the run than you might realize. Warren became the first UC back since 2012 to reach 1,000 yards for a season last week and he’s also scored 18 total touchdowns. When the Bearcats are cooking offensively, Warren is the executive chef. When they’re not, he’s still doing the heavy lifting to get them back up to speed.
One area where the Knights have some weakness is stopping the run. That doesn’t mean you can just run halfback dive after halfback dive and expect to destroy them, but since they give up more than 200 rushing yards per game, the opportunity is there. Warren is going to feature prominently in the offensive game plan just like he always does. If he also dominates like usual, the Bearcats will be in business.
The turnover battle
Losing the ball has not been a huge issue for the Bearcats, but it could be this weekend. UCF has a nearly supernatural ability to create turnovers, making careful quarterbacks throw terrible interceptions and turning the most secure ball-carriers into fumble machines. The Knights are second in the country in turnover margin (+14), having forced 21 and committed seven themselves. When you take into account UCF’s potent scoring offense, the Bearcats will need every single possession they can get. Giving away even one could spell doom.
UC vs. the 22 other teams UCF has beaten in a row
Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, at least that’s what my therapist always says. For more than a season a half, the Knights have done nothing but win. They went 13-0 last season (including a triumph over Auburn in the Peach Bowl Bowl) and they are 9-0 this year. The last time they lost was on Dec. 17, 2016 against Arkansas State in the AutoNation Cure Bowl. All that winning would lead anyone to believe this team can’t lose. That includes the Bearcats themselves.
That’s not to say that UC’s players will be frightened of UCF. Far from it. But there is a mental hurdle that needs to be overcome for the Bearcats to win. They need to not only say they can beat UCF, but really believe it. Any lingering doubt could cost them. If UCF takes and early lead or the Bearcats go three-and-out on their first position, they can’t panic. Being mentally ready will be as important as being schematically ready this week.