War on I-4 comes with AAC East title on the line
As usual, two in-state rivals from the Sunshine State will meet for a highly-anticipated football game after Thanksgiving. This year’s contest however, hardly features the usual suspects.
While Florida and Florida State are playing for pride, No. 22 South Florida and 15th-ranked UCF will meet on Friday with much more on the line. The winner of the contest dubbed the “War on I-4” will earn the American Athletic Conference’s East Division crown and remain in line for a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.
In two years on the job, UCF head coach Scott Frost will look to take the Knights from winless to unblemished. In the first year under head coach Charlie Strong, the Bulls are looking for their highest national ranking ever and perhaps a spot in a major bowl for the first time. USF has won the last two in the series.
South Florida at UCF
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: UCF -11
Three Things to Watch
The matchup at quarterback this week could be between last season’s American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year and this one’s. USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (above, right) currently has that title, but has taken a step back this season as a passer. Flowers is completing less than 54 percent of his attempts this season, but has still accounted for 26 total touchdowns and has rushed for at least 100 yards four times. Flowers rushed and passed for 152 yards last season while accounting for two touchdowns in a 48-31 win over the Knights.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the AAC this season has been UCF sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton. While Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson has been outstanding, Milton is perhaps the front-runner for the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Milton ranks second nationally in yards per attempt (10.6), completion percentage (69.6) and passer rating (186.2) behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. For the year, Milton has accounted for 31 touchdowns and is leading a UCF offense that is No. 1 in the nation in scoring (48.2 ppg). Milton has just five interceptions this year, but did struggle last season against a South Florida defense that is currently tied for second in the FBS in that category with 17.
When it comes to taking the football away, few teams do it better than UCF and South Florida. In fact, no one has done it better than the Knights this season. When it comes to turnover margin, UCF is tied for the FBS lead with Miami at plus-16. Redshirt junior cornerback Kyle Gibson leads the Knights with four interceptions this season while stud senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin has two forced fumbles and one recovery to go with his team-high 7.5 tackles for a loss.
The Bulls rank fifth nationally in average turnover margin and are plus-11 for the year. Senior safety Devin Abraham’s four interceptions lead the team, but Deatrick Nichols and Mazzi Wilkins aren’t far behind with three each. Linebacker Auggie Sanchez has returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns. Taking the ball away this week could be a real challenge for both teams as neither quarterback has been turnover-prone this season. USF was plus-two in that category in last season’s victory.
3. Offensive playmakers
The quarterbacks for Saturday’s contest are getting the most headlines, but there is no shortage of skilled offensive players around them. For South Florida, the Bulls have an absolute stable in the backfield. While Flowers leads the team in rushing, Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson each have more than 700 yards on the ground this season. Tice is averaging a team-best 5.6 yards per carry and leads the Bulls with 10 rushing touchdowns. At wide receiver, Marquez Valdes-Scantling gets involved both as a pass catcher and a rusher.
For UCF, the guy to watch is junior receiver Tre’Quan Smith. Smith has 850 receiving yards this season on 19.3 yards per reception and 12 total touchdowns. In the backfield, Adrian Killins Jr. is a home-run threat. The small sophomore may be listed at less than 160 pounds, but is averaging 7.5 yards per carry to go with nine total touchdowns. As good as both defenses have been this season, expect no shortage of points on Friday.
Saturday’s contest in Orlando will be without a doubt, the biggest in the history of the USF-UCF rivalry. The Knights are outscoring opponents at home by an average of more than 36 points per game this season and have not been held below 40 in any game at Spectrum Stadium. Since falling at home to Houston, South Florida has seemed to go through the motions in recent victories over Connecticut and Tulane, but this may also be the biggest game in program history as a division title is on the line. On top of that, the Bulls have the team speed and firepower to keep up with UCF. The spread is wide, but expect the final score to be close.
Prediction: UCF 41, South Florida 38
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)