The last American Athletic Conference school to complete a perfect season will try to end another's bid to duplicate that feat on Saturday as UCF travels to face No. 3 Cincinnati.
The Knights have not been the same team since starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel went down in a loss to Louisville last month, and they come in with a 3-2 record (1-1 AAC). The 5-0 Bearcats (1-0 AAC), on the other hand, have asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with – not only in the AAC but nationally.
The winner of the annual contest between UCF and Cincinnati has gone on to play in the AAC Championship Game in each of the last four seasons. Cincinnati won a very competitive 36-33 contest last season in Orlando and a 27-24 contest the year prior in Cincinnati. The Bearcats have won 13 straight regular-season games.
UCF at No. 3 Cincinnati
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -20.5
When UCF Has the Ball
With Gabriel in the lineup, UCF was averaging 44.5 points per game. In the two games since his season-ending clavicle injury, the Knights have averaged just 25. After letting a 13-point fourth-quarter lead slip away at Navy two weeks ago, the Knights needed a last-minute touchdown to escape against East Carolina 20-16 this past Saturday. It was the fewest points scored by UCF since the 2016 Cure Bowl. Gabriel, however, is not the only significant loss on offense for UCF. Running back Isaiah Bowser and wide receiver Jaylon Robinson, probably UCF's best two players at those positions, have not played since Sept. 17.
In Bowser's absence, Johnny Richardson has emerged. He's twice hit the 100-yard rushing mark in the last three games. Robinson is one of the nation's best, but Ryan O'Keefe and Brandon Johnson are capable pass-catchers. O'Keefe is the team's leading receiver with 315 yards while Johnson, a Tennessee transfer, leads with five touchdown receptions. For the Knights to have success, however, quarterback Mikey Keene may have to play his best game. He has yet to throw for 200 yards in either of his first two starts. Despite the recent struggles, UCF still ranks third in the conference in total offense.
Defensively, Cincinnati has been nothing short of outstanding. Allowing just 12.2 points per game, the Bearcats rank second nationally. In five games, only Indiana has managed to score more than 14 points against Cincinnati, and that includes a win over Notre Dame. The Bearcats also rank in the top 10 nationally in takeaways and fewest yards per pass attempt allowed. Linebacker Deshawn Pace leads the team with 40 tackles and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
Ahmad Gardner, one of the nation's best cornerbacks, and Arquon Bush also each have two interceptions for Cincinnati. Coby Bryant has also been outstanding in the secondary. Up front, Malik Vann, Marcus Brown, and Myjai Sanders headline a front that allows just 3.3 yards per rush. Despite the outstanding numbers, Cincinnati has not registered a lot of sacks or stops behind the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Darrian Beavers leads the team in both categories. Beavers had 1.5 sacks and four tackles for a loss in last season's victory over the Knights.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Cincinnati has good depth and skill on offense, but the straw that stirs the drink is quarterback Desmond Ridder. Ridder has always been an outstanding athlete, but he has improved immensely as a passer over the last two seasons. Ridder has already thrown for 1,304 yards and 12 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. Ridder accounted for 395 yards and four total touchdowns in last season's win over UCF. Nine different Bearcats have caught touchdowns, led by Tyler Scott's three. Alec Pierce is the leading receiver with 21 catches for 387 yards.
Despite losing last season's leading rusher Gerrid Doaks, Ridder is having to run less than ever before in his career. A big reason for that is the emergence of running back Jerome Ford. An Alabama transfer, Ford has 520 rushing yards on 6.3 yards per carry and ranks second in the AAC with eight touchdown runs. Only East Carolina's Keaton Mitchell has rushed for more yards this season among AAC players than Ford. Cincinnati leads the conference and ranks ninth nationally in scoring offense at 41 points per game.
Stopping the run will be vital for UCF. In its two losses this season, the Knights have allowed more than 500 yards on the ground and nearly five yards per carry. In last season's meeting, UCF held Cincinnati to just three yards per carry and recorded seven tackles for a loss. A similar effort may be the bare minimum for UCF to pull the upset on Saturday. The Knights are toward the bottom of the AAC in both sacks and tackles for a loss. Big Kat Bryant is an outstanding talent but has yet to put up big numbers. John Celiscar, a sophomore, leads the Knights with three sacks.
Most seasons, UCF is near the top of the country in takeaways, but it is in the middle of the pack in the AAC so far this season. Safety Quadric Bullard has been the best player in the secondary, but linebacker is the position where the Knights are deepest. Bryson Armstrong, Tatum Bethune, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, and Eriq Gilyard are all very good for UCF. They'll need a big day making plays around and behind the line of scrimmage on Saturday. UCF ranks fifth in the AAC in yards per game allowed and fourth in points.
Without Gabriel, UCF will have a very tough time scoring against the Cincinnati defense. The Knights simply aren't good enough to keep the Bearcats' offense in check for an extended period of time and have been unable to stop teams that run the ball effectively like Navy and Louisville. Cincinnati is coming off a bye and may have the best chance of any Group of 5 team yet to make the College Football Playoff. UCF is extremely shorthanded, but given that the last two meetings have been decided by three points each, this won't be a team that the Bearcats take lightly.
Prediction: Cincinnati 37, UCF 14
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.