When Tulane took on UCF less than a month ago, it marked the first time since 1949 that the Green Wave hosted a matchup of ranked teams. On Saturday, they'll do it again, and this time with even more on the line — the American Athletic Conference championship.
Both schools took care of business last week to earn the opportunity and did so in nail-biting fashion. Tulane (10-2, 7-1 AAC) topped reigning conference champion Cincinnati on the road 27-24. UCF (9-3, 6-2) nearly let a 28-point lead slip away before scoring late to beat rival USF 46-39.
The Knights handed Tulane their only conference loss of the regular season on Nov. 12 by a 38-31 score. When it comes to the American Athletic Conference Football Championship Game, UCF is no stranger as the Knights will be making their third appearance — tied for the most since the inception of the conference title game in 2015. Tulane will be making its first.
This game also will determine which team represents the Group of 5 ranks in the New Year's Six bowls. The winner of this contest is probably headed to the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.
American Athletic Conference Football Championship Game: No. 22 UCF at No. 18 Tulane
When UCF Has the Ball
When the teams met on Nov. 12, UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was a man possessed, rushing for 176 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries. The Knights' leading passer and rusher, Plumlee has battled injury all season and will again on Saturday. Plumlee left last week's win over USF with a hamstring injury, and his status for this week is unknown. Mikey Keene is a very capable backup and has shown that on numerous occasions throughout his career but doesn't come with nearly as much athleticism as Plumlee. UCF leads the AAC in total offense, averaging better than 486 yards per game.
As exciting as Plumlee is to see, the Knights have very capable players at the skill positions. Running backs RJ Harvey and Isaiah Bowser team up to make a thunder-and-lightning duo. A nice all-purpose back, Harvey has 908 yards from scrimmage this season while the bruising Bowser ranks second in the AAC with 13 rushing touchdowns. Out wide, Javon Baker, Ryan O'Keefe, and Kobe Hudson's skill sets mesh nicely. The trio has combined for 1,878 receiving yards. Each has caught five touchdowns passes.
The No. 1 scoring defense in the AAC resides in the "Big Easy." Tulane allows less than 20 points per game, and only Cincinnati yields fewer yards per contest. The Green Wave don't generate a ton of pressure but do just about everything else well. At linebacker, Tulane may have the best unit in the entire conference. Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson have each already surpassed the 100-tackle mark this season. Williams also is tied for the team lead with four sacks, two interceptions, and six passes defended. Darius Hodge (four sacks) might be the best pass rusher for the Green Wave.
Against Tulane, getting into the secondary doesn't mean the hits are any less lethal. Larry Brooks and Macon Clark are a nasty duo of hard-hitting safeties. Each has recorded two interceptions, and Clark also has three forced fumbles. Cornerback Jarius Monroe might be the best cover man for Tulane. As a team, the Green Wave tied for the AAC lead with 19 takeaways during the regular season. Tulane, however, allowed 468 yards and a season-high 38 points to UCF in the first meeting.
When Tulane Has the Ball
If Plumlee is unable to go, Tulane's Michael Pratt will be the most athletic quarterback on the field Saturday. After a bit of a sophomore slump in 2021, Pratt has 30 total touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. He ranks second in the AAC in passer rating and yards per attempt. Pratt does a nice job spreading the ball around, as seven different Tulane pass catchers have at least 20 catches and 235 receiving yards this season. Shae Wyatt leads the team with 30 catches for 582 yards, but Duece Watts has been the best at getting into the end zone via the air (seven TD catches). Jha'Quan Jackson and tight end Tyrick James are other solid receivers.
The straw that stirs the drink for the Tulane offense, however, is running back Tyjae Spears. Spears has 1,177 rushing yards and an AAC-leading 14 touchdowns on the ground. Spears also is a receiving threat out of the backfield. After rushing for 130 yards on just eight carries in the first meeting between the teams, expect a healthier dose of Spears this time around. Pratt is a very good runner himself, but he was a non-factor in that respect in the first meeting between the teams.
Despite allowing a season-high 39 points to the 1-11 Bulls last week, UCF still has one of the better defenses in the AAC. Up front, Tre'Mon Morris-Brash is a tough man to block. Morris-Brash leads the team with six sacks and had one of UCF's two against the Green Wave three weeks ago. The other belonged to the Knights' defensive MVP, linebacker Jason Johnson. Johnson leads UCF with 114 total tackles for the season — good for second in the conference.
Much like Tulane, UCF doesn't record a lot of sacks but does just about everything else well. Defensive tackle Ricky Barber is a solid run-stuffer while Josh Celiscar is a very capable edge setter. The secondary is anchored by Divaad Wilson and Davonte Brown. Wilson leads the team with three interceptions. The Knights forced the game's only two turnovers in the first meeting with the Green Wave.
Plumlee's up-in-the-air status makes this one tougher to predict, but Keene is a very good No. 2 quarterback. UCF seems to excel in the big game just as it did three weeks ago, but the Knights haven't played nearly as well since with an embarrassing home loss to Navy and a near-disaster against lowly USF. Tulane, on the other hand, shellacked SMU before picking up an impressive road win over Cincinnati. UCF head coach Gus Malzahn will get a good effort from his guys, but the Green Wave have been the better team since the first meeting. Willie Fritz and Co. will make adjustments and take advantage of the home crowd to claim their first AAC title.
Prediction: Tulane 31, UCF 27
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.
*Price as of publication.