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AAC Championship Game Preview and Prediction: Memphis vs. UCF

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For the third time this season, Memphis and UCF are scheduled to tee it up against each other.

The first matchup was slated for Sept. 8 but Hurricane Irma forced that game to be postponed. Then, the two programs settled on a date of Sept. 30, when the Knights put a 40-13 hurting on the Tigers. Since then No. 14 UCF has continued what has been an unlikely unbeaten season, made even more remarkable when you consider this team was winless just two years ago. (Now you see why Scott Frost is such hot property for that flailing Nebraska program.)

Meanwhile, after getting shut down by the Knights’ defense on that September evening, the Tigers have gone hay-wire crazy offensively, scoring 70, 30, 42, 56, 41, 66 and 70 points in their seven-game winning streak. Riley Ferguson is seventh nationally in passing yards per game and game-breaking wideout Anthony Miller also is seventh in receiving yards per game. Those two are complemented by 1,000-yard rusher Darrell Henderson, making No. 20 Memphis a well-oiled machine.

That leads us to our third matchup of these two, which is this weekend in the AAC Football Championship. The winner gets a big trophy, a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game and the head coach gets either a bump in pay or the glory of a new, higher-paying gig at a Power 5 school.

AAC Football Championship: Memphis at UCF

Kickoff: Saturday Dec. 2 at 12 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: UCF -7

Three Things to Watch

1. Those underrated quarterbacks

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It is not a bold statement to say that Memphis’ Riley Ferguson and UCF’s McKenzie Milton (right) are two of the most underrated players in the country. Ferguson has thrown 31 TDs and just eight interceptions and Milton has tossed 30 TDs and six INTs. But the big key in their first matchup was the fact that Ferguson was pressured into throwing three picks and lost a fumble, while Milton threw one pick but there were no other turnovers. Watch the go-to guys on each side as Ferguson has Anthony Miller at his disposal, who is second in the nation with 14 TD catches and 78 catches overall. Just behind him at No. 7 nationally is the Knights’ Tre’Quan Smith, who has 11 touchdowns, to go along with his 48 catches overall. Have an oxygen tank handy, just watching these guys in this game is going cause hyperventilation

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2. Many happy returns

Both teams not only have record-setting quarterbacks, but keep a discernible eye on the special teams as both possess a game-changing return specialist. Memphis features Tony Pollard, who is tops in the country at 44 yards per return including four of them for touchdowns. UCF counters with Mike Hughes, who is third in the FBS with 35 yards per return and two touchdowns. It was his 95-yard zip to pay dirt in the final minute that was the difference in the seven-point win over archrival USF last weekend. Conversely, pressure will be on the kickers and their ability to nail kickoffs through the end zone. Anything that is returnable, even a boot that is five or six yards deep, is asking for a kick-six from these two burners.

3. Defense will be a mere suggestion

If recent history is accurate, this title game should be a raging score-fest. Going into this one, the Memphis offense ranks fifth nationally, averaging 529 yards per game and UCF is at No. 6 averaging 523 yards per game. The Tigers are ninth in passing at 327 yards per game and the Knights are 11th with 325. Dear scoreboard operator, have some replacement LED lights available, this one could be a track meet. Yet still, make no mistake, the Knights have the better defense, as they led the AAC in total defense going into last week’s game with USF. But then Quinton Flowers torched the Knights for 500 yards through the air and 102 yards on the ground, so who knows which D will show up to stop Memphis’ attack? The one constant is that the Tigers’ defense is really toothless, allowing 453 yards per game, which is 111th in the FBS. Give the (slight) advantage to the Knights.

Final Analysis

You always hear coaches say that it’s difficult to beat a good team twice in a season, especially in college. Well Memphis has that going for them. This game won’t be anything like that first one, which was a Knights’ blowout party. This one will more closely resemble last week’s USF-UCF light show, which was possibly the best game of the entire 2017 FBS season.

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Expect the offenses to dominate as both have playmakers galore, are very balanced and seem to be hitting their stride going into this showdown. But another old football adage is “defense wins championships.” Not that either D is going to be the Great Wall of China here, but the Knights have been known to put the clamps on opponents a wee-bit better than the Tigers do, as witnessed by the first matchup.

It won’t be another 40-13 rout, but I could see the Knights putting up a key stop or two to make the difference here.

Prediction: UCF 55, Memphis 45

— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.

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Memphis TigersUCF Knights