First and foremost is the fact that UCF is the only team remaining in the FBS who has a perfect record at 12-0. Also, what will it look like for Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn to come out of this with a loss and finish with four blemishes on the record? I mean this is a team that is wildly talented and nearly played its way into the final four. 10-4? Pfft, four losses? No way.
Another factor on the coaching front in this game is the status of UCF’s Scott Frost. As any college football fan with a laptop will know, Frost is slated to be the next Nebraska head coach after this game is done. He became hot property after leading the Knights to this year’s unbeaten mark a mere two years after they were 0-12 in 2015.
Both UCF and Nebraska school officials agreed to allow Frost to coach the Peach Bowl for the Knights before moving back home to take the reigns of the Cornhuskers. So if anything, it will be wildly interesting to see how his team performs for him in this last go-round. You also have to wonder where the mindset of Auburn’s players will be too, since they had the big letdown of getting beaten soundly by Georgia in the SEC title game and missing out on the College Football Playoff.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: UCF vs. Auburn
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 1 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Auburn -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The contrast of styles
This game is going to be a great matchup if you like differing strengths going head-to-head. Nothing will be more intriguing than seeing how the nation’s top offensive scoring team, UCF (49 points per game), fares against the nation’s 10th-ranked defense in Auburn. Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton (above, right) has been a real dynamo in leading this offense both through the air and on the ground. The Knights are seventh in FBS in passing (339 ypg) and 34th in rushing (202 ypg) and they’ll face off with a Tigers D that is holding opponents to 17 points per game and is 17th against the pass (183 ypg allowed) and 32nd against the run (135 ypg). Obviously, this being a rock-ribbed SEC defense across the line of scrimmage, it will easily be the best defense Milton and Co. has faced this season. So points will be at a premium... well, relatively speaking that is.
2. Johnson shouldering the load
One of the bigger questions going into this game is the health of Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (right). The SEC Offensive Player of the Year ran for 1,320 yards this season but ended up leaving the SEC title game vs. Georgia with a shoulder injury. Reports are saying that he is back and is expected to play. Whether he is 100 percent or not is uncertain. The other bugaboo with the Auburn running game is that Kamryn Pettway, who ran for 1,224 yards last year but did not play in the final five games of this season, did not make the trip to Atlanta due to his own shoulder injury. If the Tigers’ running game stalls, as it did in losses to Clemson, LSU (second half) and Georgia, QB Jarrett Stidham will have more pressure put on him and give the Knights their best chance for a win.
3. Can the Knights play defense?
And yes, we’re talking about that OTHER defense here. We know Auburn can play some D. Holding Alabama to 14 points was pretty stout, especially that second half. But does our college football nation know that UCF can play some defense? Probably not. Most of the country has been paying attention to what the Knights have done lately and that hasn’t been so hot. In their last two games against South Florida and Memphis the Knights relented 42 and 55 points respectively. In uglier terms, they gave up 653 and 753 yards respectively. Aye caramba. But in nine of their other 10 games they held their opponents to 23 points or less. So they have been better. But they will need to be so much better in this one to get them a chance. Which may be a tall order.
This looks like one of those classic games where the Power 5 team isn’t playing for big brass ring and lacks motivation and plays listless against the mid-major team who has a chip on its shoulder and is using this game to stick its chest out for the rest of the nation to see. Unfortunately, Knights running back Adrian Killins came out in the Orlando Sentinel and stated “Auburn hasn’t seen any speed like we have here so I would say they’re in for a rude awakening.”
Oof. That was a mistake. A grave mistake.
Any hopes that the Knights had to come out and roll over an unmotivated team is now gone. That got Auburn’s attention. And regardless of how much offensive explosiveness the Knights might have, Auburn still has the better assembly of talent. You also have to figure that the Plainsmen have learned from their past mistakes. Last year they got worked over pretty soundly in the Sugar Bowl by Oklahoma and will look to make amends this time around. Pardon me Mr. Killins, but I think the Tigers will be ready.
Prediction: Auburn 42, UCF 32
— 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.