South Florida and UCF will meet for the 13th time on Friday in a rivalry that has come to be known as "The War on I-4." UCF has dominated in recent years, winning each of the last four matchups, but all-time, the teams have each won six games head-to-head.
UCF (7-4, 4-3 American Athletic Conference) has already clinched a fifth straight winning season but can get to nine by beating the Bulls and prevailing in the bowl game. South Florida, despite significant improvement late in the season, comes in with a record of just 2-9 (1-6 in conference). The current four-game winning streak for the Knights over the Bulls ties the longest winning streak for either program in the history of the rivalry.
A win for USF would be a solid way to end Year 2 of the Jeff Scott era. And while it's not quite the "Iron Bowl," beating South Florida and getting to nine wins with a bowl victory would be a solid start for first-year UCF head coach Gus Malzahn. Last season's 58-46 victory for UCF was the highest-scoring game in the history of the rivalry.
South Florida at UCF
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -18.5
When South Florida Has the Ball
It's been a long season in Tampa, but last week's performance was among the worst all year for South Florida. Against a Tulane team that was previously without a conference win, the Bulls failed to muster 300 yards of offense and turned the ball over twice in the 45-14 defeat. The Bulls rank ninth in the conference in both total and scoring offense, so yards and points have been hard to come by. To get anything going on Friday, they will likely rely on the ground attack.
Running back Jaren Mangham and wide receiver Xavier Weaver are the two players to watch for USF. Mangham has 578 rushing yards this season and ranks second in the AAC with 15 rushing touchdowns. Although quarterback play has not been good for USF, Weaver has made plays on the outside. He leads the team with 643 yards from scrimmage. For the season, Brian Battie and Kelley Joiner Jr. have been solid complementary backs. UCF will want to force unproven quarterback Timmy McClain to win the game with his arm.
After a 3-3 start, the Knights have won four of their last five games and a big reason for the turnaround has been the play of the defense. Although they did struggle recently with SMU, UCF has given up less than 20 points per game over the last five. After a slow start to the season, Auburn transfer Big Kat Bryant's emergence has helped the Knights tremendously. Bryant leads the team this season with five sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. Tre'Mon Morris-Brash has come on as a pass rusher in recent weeks as well.
Despite the loss of Bryson Armstrong, the strength for UCF may be at linebacker. The Knights are deep at the position with guys such as Tatum Bethune and Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste making plays all over the field. In the secondary, Quadric Bullard has been a tackling machine. In recent years, UCF has been one of the best teams in the nation at taking the ball away. This season, the Knights rank third in the AAC in takeaways (20) and turnover margin (+5). As a whole, UCF ranks third in the AAC in total defense (373.9 ypg) and fourth in scoring defense (26.3 ppg).
When UCF Has the Ball
UCF hasn't been nearly as efficient offensively since losing quarterback Dillon Gabriel for the season, but Mikey Keene has started to put it all together over the last several weeks. Over the last four games, Keene has 11 total touchdowns and just one interception following a slow start. In the passing game, Keene will target Ryan O'Keefe and Brandon Johnson early and often. O'Keefe is tied for the AAC lead with 72 receptions and leads the Knights with 682 receiving yards. Johnson's 10 touchdown catches lead the conference.
The top priority for UCF on Friday however, will be to run the football. The Knights have a "thunder and lightning" combination in Johnny Richardson and Isaiah Bowser. Richardson rushed for a career-high 147 yards on just 14 carries in last week's 49-17 rout of UConn. At 225 pounds, Bowser leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns. UCF ranks just seventh in the AAC in total offense (410.1 ypg) but puts up the fourth-most points at nearly 34 per game.
Among AAC defenses, only Temple allows more points and no one allows more yards per game than South Florida. The Bulls have been abysmal for most of the season and among FBS opponents, only Temple and East Carolina scored fewer than 32 points against USF. There aren't many strengths for the South Florida defense, but Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles are fun to watch at linebacker. Grier leads the team with 76 total tackles and three sacks and is one of four players on the team with two interceptions this season. In addition to his two picks, Boyles leads the team with two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
For USF, the pass rush has been almost nonexistent. For the season, the Bulls have recorded just nine total sacks. Nationally, no team has fewer. Mekhi LaPointe and Christian Williams are having decent seasons in the secondary, but USF is yielding the second-most yards per pass attempt (8.7) in the AAC. If there is one area where the Bulls should have the advantage on Friday, it's placekicking. Spencer Shrader is 9-for-10 this season on field goals with a long of 52 yards.
Despite having only two wins, South Florida had been pretty competitive for the middle parts of the season prior to last week's debacle against Tulane. The Bulls, however, have no real strengths, and UCF is getting better on each side of the ball since the 3-3 start. South Florida's inability to stop the pass or the run and UCF's newfound offensive balance will be the difference at the Bounce House.
Prediction: UCF 37, South Florida 17
Podcast: Week 13 Preview, Predictions, and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.