GAME NOTES: In a crucial American Athletic Conference matchup the two teams at the top of the league standings will be pitted against one another, as the Houston Cougars visit the UCF Knights at Bright House Networks Stadium.
This is the first leg of a critical three-game stretch for Houston. The Cougars, who have surprised many by opening up at 7-1 overall, and 4-0 against the AAC, will face No. 20 Louisville on the road next week and Cincinnati at home after that.
UCF has yet to lose a game in league play as well, though at 3-0 the Knights are still trailing the Cougars by a half game in the standings. UCF has been extremely impressive this season with a 34-31 win at Penn State as well as an important 38-35 win at Louisville, that effectively knocked the Cardinals out of the BCS title chase. UCF has won three straight games entering this contest with the last victory a 62-17 rout of Connecticut. The Knights enjoyed a bye week following that victory and have had plenty of time to prepare for this matchup.
"Each week you have to treat it like a championship game. Attack it, stay with your accountability and responsibility, regardless," UCF head coach George O'Leary said of his team's mentality.
These teams are clearly not strangers as they made the move to the ACC from Conference USA together this year. However, this will only be the fifth all- time meeting. UCF has taken wins in three of the previous four meetings, including a 40-33 win during the last matchup in 2011.
"We are familiar with them. Just having been in Conference USA for the last five years that I've been a member of our program," Houston head coach Tony Levine said of the Knights. "They are a well coached team. They make you earn everything. They don't make mistakes."
It has been obvious all season that Houston can move the ball up and down the field as well as any team in the league. The Cougars are third in the AAC in total offense (483.1 ypg) and one of just three teams in the league to average more than 6.5 yards per play.
Guiding the Cougars from under center is John O'Korn, who has done a great job after taking over for David Piland early on. O'Korn has thrown for 2,121 yards and 22 touchdowns to just four interceptions, while completing 65.2 percent of his passes. O'Korn has really picked up his play in the last three weeks with at least three touchdown passes in each contest and two 360-yard efforts during that time. Only Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater has thrown more touchdown passes than O'Korn.
The strong passing numbers have been helped by some talented pass-catchers. Deontay Greenberry is the most productive of the group and one of the better receivers in the league, bringing in 62 passes for 948 yards and nine touchdowns. In the Cougars' most recent win over South Florida, Greenberry tallied 106 yards and a score on four receptions for his fifth 100-yard effort of the year. Daniel Spencer (34 receptions, 562 yards, five TDs) has the skill to put forth 100-yard games as well, as does Xavier Maxwell (23 receptions, 326 yards, four TDs).
A pair of running backs powers the rushing game for the Cougars. Ryan Jackson (531 yards, five TDs) is the primary option as his 105 carries are also a team-high. Kenneth CArrow (342 yards, four TDs) has been able to perform at a high level as well, despite a more limited workload.
While the offense has certainly been running on all cylinders, Houston has not been as impressive on defense. The Cougars are eighth in the 10-team league in total yards allowed (430.3 ypg). However, Houston has been a very opportunistic bunch, forcing a conference-best 29 turnovers. That is 11 more than any other team in the league has been able to create. Tyus Bowser (5.0 sacks) is the top pass rusher, while Derick Mathews (74 tackles, four sacks, INT) has been extremely versatile.
UCF should be able to hang right with Houston in terms of offensive production, as the Knights are scoring 37 points per game, ranking among the top five teams in the conference in total yards gained (434.7 ypg).
The duel between O'Korn and his UCF counterpart, Blake Bortles, should be interesting. Like O'Korn, Bortles is an extremely efficient passer that rarely turns the ball over. He has thrown for 1,870 yards and 15 touchdowns on the year, completing an impressive 67.2 percent of his passes. On top of those numbers Bortles has only been guilty of four interceptions. Bortles was on point against UConn when he threw for four touchdown passes, which was also the number of incompletions he had on 24 attempts.
Bortles has been a bit more generous with the spreading of the ball than O'Korn. There are four different receivers who have recorded at least 20 receptions this season. Rannell Hall (28 receptions, 487 yards, three TDs) leads the team, but Breshad Perriman (22 receptions, 507 yards, TD) is more of a threat to pick up big yardage totals. J.J. Worton (20 receptions, 311 yards, four TDs) is another important piece, as he proved by posting 119 yards on six catches against the Huskies.
Running the ball has largely fallen to Storm Johnson, although Bortles has been known to take off and pick up a few yards here and there. Johnson has rushed for 592 yards and nine touchdowns on 114 carries. He will be looking to bounce back from a bland effort against UConn when he had 28 yards on nine carries.
Where UCF will have an advantage is on defense, as the Knights are allowing only 349 yards per game, while owning the third best mark in the league in scoring defense (19.3 ppg). Rushing the passer hasn't been a real strength, but Terrance Plummer (60 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, two INTs) has proven to be just as destructive in the secondary as in opponent's backfields.
This is where the rubber meets the road for Houston. It can finally prove its hot start was no fluke. Even if that is true the Cougars will have trouble on the road against a UCF team that should be able to match them blow for blow.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UCF 33, Houston 24