The Fiesta Bowl matchup between LSU vs. UCF is eerily similar to last year. Here are the Knights, undefeated and set to take on another SEC heavyweight in an attempt to complete their second straight undefeated season and, in their eyes, defend their self-proclaimed national title. The only thing standing in the way this time is the defense-heavy Tigers.
Last year, UCF outlasted Auburn in the Peach Bowl to finish up a 13-0 season. This year, the Knights (12-0) once again won the American Athletic Conference and secured the Group of 5’s spot in the New Year’s Sixbowls. LSU limped down the stretch, going 2-2 in the month of November (including that epic seven-overtime loss at Texas A&M) to finish the regular season 9-3 for the second straight year.
This is certainly one of the biggest contrasts in style of any bowl game out there this year as UCF’s high-octane offense and questionable defense will face off with LSU’s vanilla offense and rock-ribbed defense. Of course, this will be the second straight game that the Knights will play without it’s All-American quarterback McKenzie Milton, who had a horrific leg injury against South Florida. But Darriel Mack Jr. filled in admirably and led UCF to a come-from-behind AAC title game win over Memphis.
LSU will be without a handful of players due to skipping the game for the NFL draft and a few suspensions. But head coach Ed Orgeron claims his team will be “highly motivated” for this showdown in the desert as the Tigers attempt to finish in the top 10. We’ll see if he’s right when the whistle blows.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: LSU (9-3) vs. UCF (12-0)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
Spread: LSU -7
Three Things To Watch
1. Darriel Mack Jr. and his receivers vs. LSU’s corners
The Knights are as high-powered as it gets in college football, even with the backup QB at the controls. Their receiving corps of Gabriel Davis, Dredrick Snelson and Tre Nixon and running backs Greg McCrae and Adrian Killins will give the Tigers their biggest test of the year. Things will be doubly difficult for LSU’s secondary with both Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton sitting out the bowl game to avoid injury before the NFL draft. There is an argument that those two combined to make the best pair of cover corners in FBS. Now, the Tigers will be much thinner in the secondary. And keep in mind that was a secondary that repeatedly gave up big plays at Texas A&M.
2. Simple, whoever plays better defense
This may come as a wee-bit of a surprise, but the Tigers and Knights are statistically very similar, with LSU holding opponents to 20.9 points per game and UCF holding opponents to 21.3. These two units are ranked 22nd and 23rd nationally. Of course, the degree of difficulty is much greater on the Tigers’ side as they have played a decidedly tougher schedule.
Linebacker Devin White and defensive back Grant Delpit are the linchpins of the defense for LSU and should make enough big plays to turn the Knights from making this a track meet. By contrast, the Tigers’ offense is not hard for opponents to figure out and the Knights have a chance at making some stops and keeping this one close for four quarters. But that leads to the big question, which defense will wilt down the stretch?
3. The Tigers’ running game.
Even though we glossed both defenses above, the Knights have had a bit of a porous run defense, giving up 227.4 rushing yards per game, which is 117th in the country. The Tigers lack a Leonard Fournette or a Derrius Guice, but the running game is still capable of making an impact, averaging 174 yards on the ground per game. The fact that quarterback Joe Burrow is not a gunslinger means more emphasis will be placed on the running game in this one. The big difference between a Power 5 team and a Group of 5 team is usually in the running game. The Knights can’t afford to have the Tigers control the clock and eat up time of possession. Because of that look for LSU to establish Nick Brossette early and have Burrow provide plenty of scrambles for extra yards as well.
As much as I hate bowl games (instead of playoff games), the instances where we get a David vs. Goliath matchup like this are just really, really tasty. And yes, I realize I just called UCF the “David” here, but this is another chance to prove their transitioning to Goliath status is for real. The Group of 5 has had good success against the Power 5 in these New Year’s Day games since the inception of the College Football Playoff with Boise State beating Arizona and Houston beating Florida State in the first two years and UCF beating Auburn last year.
But man alive, it’s hard to trust a backup quarterback against a defense that is such a force in the SEC. And you know the Tigers are going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Darriel Mack Jr. in their blitz packages to try to induce turnovers. Yeah, LSU’s nickel defense is depleted a bit, but the Tigers will make up the difference in their front line going against that UCF O-line. It’s no shock that LSU has seen the best offensive lines in the country and this one won’t intimidate them.
Of course there is a huge asterisk attached to this pick. On paper, LSU should be favored and should win this game, probably even by a couple touchdowns. But bowl games are all about motivation, and which team is ready to play and which team is just ready to kick back in the offseason. UCF is hugely motivated to beat another SEC team and prove their worth after getting snubbed by the playoff selection committee once again. But for now, I’ll go with the pick as it appears on paper and the disparity in talent. Just don’t be shocked if the Knights come out with their hair on fire and pull the upset trick again.
Prediction: LSU 35, UCF 27
— 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.