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AAC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Memphis vs. UCF

AAC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Memphis vs. UCF

AAC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Memphis vs. UCF

During UCF’s 24-game winning streak, no team has come closer to beating the Knights than Memphis. The Tigers will get another crack at UCF for the American Athletic Conference Championship on Saturday.

Memphis gave UCF its toughest game of the season, falling 31-30 at home when the teams played on Oct. 13. The Knights beat the Tigers last season for the AAC title in double overtime by a 62-55 score. The only other teams to stay within a touchdown of UCF during the winning streak were SMU, South Florida and Auburn — all last season.

UCF (11-0, 8-0 AAC) clinched the AAC East division two weeks ago with a dominant 38-13 win at home over Cincinnati and is coming off a 38-10 victory at South Florida. In a contest to determine the West division champion last week, Memphis (8-4, 5-3) topped Houston, 52-31.

In four prior years of existence, UCF is already the AAC’s only two-time champion and will look to be the first team to repeat in the brief history of the conference. Memphis looks to join Temple’s 2016 team as the only teams to go on the road and win the AAC title. With a victory, UCF will lock up a third major bowl appearance in six years and keep its outside hopes of a College Football Playoff berth alive.

AAC Championship Game: Memphis at UCF

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET


Spread: UCF -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Darriel Mack Jr.

With McKenzie Milton done for the season due to a horrific leg injury, UCF will have to rely on Mack, a freshman, to quarterback the Knights to victory. Mack is a big body at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, but his strength is much more as a runner than as a passer. Although Mack is completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes for the season and was just 5-for-14 against South Florida last week, he has a big arm and proved last week that he was unafraid to take shots down the field. Even if Mack isn’t very consistent, the Knights could still hit a few big plays on Saturday.

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Making the Milton injury even more significant is just how well he’s played against Memphis over the last two seasons. In three games against the Tigers, Milton has averaged 348 passing yards while accounting for nine total touchdowns. In last season’s conference championship, Milton passed for 494 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 68 more yards and a score. Milton was bottled up as a rusher this season but did pass for 296 yards in the one-point win on Oct. 13. Milton was recently named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year for a second season in a row.

2. Darrell Henderson

With Riley Ferguson graduating after last season, Henderson has stepped up and assumed the role as the focal point of the Memphis offense. And he has not disappointed. At 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, the junior is a complete back. For the season, Henderson has nearly 1,700 rushing yards, 1,985 yards of total offense and 22 total touchdowns. He ran for 178 yards and a pair of scores in last week’s win over Houston.

After being shut down against UCF during the regular season last year, Henderson has given the Knights' defense fits over the last two meetings. In last season’s AAC title game, Henderson finished with 109 yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries. In the 31-30 loss back in October, Henderson finished a yard shy of 200 on the ground in addition to finding the end zone twice. Henderson's 8.6 yards per carry ranks fourth nationally. Among the three in front of him is UCF's Greg McCabe, but his 9.0 yards per carry has come in exactly half the amount of carries (99) compared to Henderson's workload (198).

3. The turnover battle

Nationally, only Georgia Southern has a better turnover margin than UCF, which is plus-16 for the season. The Knights have taken the football away 25 times this season and given it away just nine times. Only Georgia Southern and Army have committed fewer turnovers. Leading tackler Richie Grant, a redshirt sophomore defensive back, has been a takeaway machine for UCF this season with five interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Memphis has not been bad when it comes to turnover margin this season as it is in the middle of the pack at plus-two for the season. In the October contest between the schools, Memphis did turn it over twice to just once for the Knights. Both of those turnovers came in the second half and the final one — a fumble by Kedarian Jones — set up the game-winning touchdown for UCF with more than 12 minutes remaining. The Tigers did win the turnover battle in last season’s conference title game and may have a chance to do so again on Saturday. Cornerbacks Tito Windham and T.J. Carter each lead Memphis with two interceptions while linebackers Austin Hall and J.J. Russell each have a pair of forced fumbles.

Final Analysis

If there was ever a time for Memphis to break UCF’s winning streak, it may be now. The Knights are without the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year and the area of the Memphis defense that has been most vulnerable is stopping the pass. In addition to that, the Tigers seem to be playing their best football at the right time. After the heartbreaking loss to UCF and getting manhandled by Missouri to fall to 4-4, Memphis has won four straight games, which included a statement win against Houston last week with the division title on the line. Despite that, UCF get this game at home and the Knights seem to thrive when people are betting against them. Although McKenzie Milton is out, UCF has played very well over the last two weeks and has much more to lose and much more to gain than the Tigers.

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Prediction: UCF 32, Memphis 27

— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the editor of The Daily Nole. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook and follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.