The implications aren't quite as big for this year's "War on I-4" in Orlando between UCF and South Florida, but the Knights still have hopes of a 10-win season. USF head coach Charlie Strong could really use a signature win after a disappointing season.
UCF bounced back from a tough loss at Tulsa with a hard-fought win at Tulane, and a senior class that has averaged more than 10 wins per season will try to go out with a win at Spectrum Stadium on Friday night. As for the Bulls, they'll try to avoid losing three straight to UCF — something they've never done.
At 8-3, UCF has already been eliminated from American Athletic Conference Championship Game contention. South Florida has been eliminated from bowl contention for the first time since 2014 with last week's 49-10 loss to Memphis. The Bulls hold a 6-4 edge in the all-time series.
South Florida at UCF
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -24.5
When South Florida Has the Ball
Points have been hard to come by for South Florida this season, and that has been particularly true of late. USF has lost three straight and four of five. In its last four losses, South Florida is averaging a meager 9.3 points per contest. The Bulls average the fewest yards per game of any team in the AAC, and only Connecticut scores fewer points per contest. Since switching from veteran Blake Barnett to freshman Jordan McCloud at quarterback, South Florida has committed to try to shorten the game and find yards on the ground.
McCloud has 16 total touchdowns and six interceptions this season. The biggest weapons for the USF offense are running back Jordan Cronkrite, who leads the team with 688 rushing yards, and 6-foot-5 tight end Mitchell Wilcox. Wilcox leads the team with 26 catches for 334 yards and five touchdowns. Despite being a run-heavy team, the Bulls have still allowed 43 sacks — by far the most in the conference.
UCF has probably given up more points than it would have liked this season, but the Knights are only giving up a little over 24 per contest, and among AAC teams, only Navy yields fewer yards per contest. Up front, senior Brendon Hayes has had the best season in terms of rushing the passer, leading the team with 6.5 sacks, and he will look to add to that total against a USF front that can’t protect its quarterback.
Senior linebacker Nate Evans ranks second in The American in total tackles and needs eight to hit 100 after finishing with 99 last season. Cornerback Aaron Robinson leads the team with three interceptions. Safety Richie Grant is also a ballhawk for the Knights.
When UCF Has the Ball
McKenzie Milton suffered a grotesque leg injury in last season’s matchup, and many wondered what the quarterback situation would be like this season. Freshman Dillon Gabriel, who like Milton is a native Hawaiian, has answered the call and ranks 12th nationally in passer rating and eighth in yards per attempt. For the year, Gabriel has 28 total touchdowns and just seven interceptions. All of those picks have come in the three losses. Gabriel has been helped immensely by junior wide receiver Gabriel Davis, who leads The American with 1,135 yards receiving on 64 catches to go with 10 touchdown grabs.
In the backfield, the Knights have a four-headed monster. The quartet of Otis Anderson Jr., Adrian Killins, Bentavious Thompson, and Greg McCrae have combined for more than 2,100 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. Anderson leads the team with 658 yards, while Thompson has found the end zone eight times on the ground.
What South Florida lacks on offense, it tries to make up on defense. The Bulls are in the middle of the conference statistically, but they do lead the AAC in turnovers forced with 24 on the season. That’s tied for third in the country. Leading tackler and linebacker Patrick Macon and safety Bentlee Sanders both have forced two fumbles this season, while senior Devin Studstill has three interceptions.
Macon and fellow linebacker Dwayne Boyles lead the team with 67 total tackles apiece. Linebacker Antonio Grier leads the Bulls with four sacks. In South Florida’s four wins this season, it is plus-seven in turnover margin. In the Knights’ three losses, they're minus-seven.
For South Florida to have any real chance at beating rival UCF, it will need to force multiple turnovers and probably score a non-offensive touchdown or two. The Bulls are respectable on defense, but given how much offensive firepower UCF has, they probably won’t be able to score enough points to keep up. Even if USF gets stops early, it’s hard to have confidence that the offense could stay on the field long enough to keep the Bulls from eventually getting worn down.