The Cougars come in with an overall record of 2-1 while the Knights are 3-2. Over the three combined losses between the teams however, they led in the fourth quarter in each of them. UCF snapped a two-game skid with a 51-34 win over Tulane last week, while Houston bounced back from a tough loss to BYU to top Navy, 37-21.
Houston held the halftime lead in last season's meeting between the teams, but the Knights erupted for three touchdowns in the third quarter for a 44-29 win. Houston's last win in the series came in 2016.
UCF at Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -2.5
When UCF Has the Ball
When it comes to offense, no one is averaging more yards per game this season than UCF. The Knights are putting up nearly 647 yards per contest. That's 53 yards per contest more than the next closest team. UCF has the nation's leading passer and receiver. Sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel leads the nation in completions, yards and touchdown passes. He's thrown for 2,178 yards and 19 scores. Marlon Williams, a senior, is the nation's leading receiver with 753 yards on an FBS-leading 54 receptions.
Gabriel and Williams may headline the offense for UCF, but there is no shortage of talent at the skill positions. The three-headed monster at running back of Greg McCrae, Otis Anderson and Betavious Thompson has combined for more than 800 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Complimenting Williams out wide is Jaylon Robinson, who ranks fifth nationally with 602 receiving yards. Robinson and senior Jacob Harris have each caught four touchdown passes.
Despite allowing nearly 32 points per game, Houston has one of the better defenses in the American Athletic Conference. The Cougars rank fourth in scoring defense and third in total defense, yielding less than 354 yards per game. UCF won't be the first top-10 offense that Houston has faced this season. Against BYU, Houston allowed 43 points and 478 yards in a 43-26 loss. It is worth noting that BYU had just 14 points with less than a minute to play in the third quarter.
The strength for Houston is the run defense. The Cougars are giving up just 2.6 yards per carry, which leads the AAC and ranks fifth nationally among teams to play multiple games. Seniors Payton Turner and David Anenhi have five of the team's 10 sacks and headline a very good defensive line. The bad news for Houston is that it allows 9.6 yards per pass attempt – the most in the AAC and the seventh-most nationally. The aerial attack is where UCF is most dangerous. Gabriel threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns in last season's contest. Junior linebacker Donavan Mutin leads the Cougars with 22 tackles this season.
When Houston Has the Ball
The Houston offense has been fueled by a much-improved Clayton Tune. The junior quarterback is averaging 315 yards passing per game, completing better than 66 percent of his attempts and is tied for the AAC lead in yards per attempt with Gabriel and behind him only in passer rating. Tune has nine total touchdowns this season and just two interceptions. At Tune's disposal will be senior wide receiver Marquez Stevenson. The senior leads the team with 266 receiving yards and three touchdowns while averaging 17.7 yards per catch.
Converted linebacker Keith Corbin is another player to watch out wide for the Cougars. Unfortunately for Tune and company, they haven't gotten much help from the rushing attack. Kyle Porter, a hard-running 210-pound senior, leads the team with 203 yards, but on less than four yards per carry. As a team, the Cougars average just 3.1 yards per carry – dead last in the AAC
As for the UCF defense, it has given up an average of nearly 40 points per game over its last three contests. Although the Knights rank in the middle of the pack in the AAC in scoring defense, only Memphis gives up more yards per game than UCF's 482. The Knights are giving up 195 yards per game on the ground and 287 through the air. No team in the AAC has allowed more touchdown passes than UCF this season.
Despite UCF's struggles in the secondary, it does have talent there. Safety Richie Grant appears to be in the midst of an All-American season with 36 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two recoveries. Linebacker Eric Mitchell is the top tackler for the Knights with 40 stops. Senior defensive tackle Kenny Turnier leads UCF with four sacks this season. That ranks second in the AAC. One area where the Knights continue to excel is takeaways. UCF leads the conference with 14 forced turnovers and a plus-eight turnover margin. Currently second nationally, UCF has ranked in the top five in turnover margin in two of the previous three seasons.
This one will likely come down to which offense can get the most stops. Because of its ability to force turnovers and Houston's struggles to run the football, that team will ultimately be UCF on Saturday. The Cougars should be able to score early and often, but stops will be few and far between. UCF has been virtually unstoppable on offense and Houston's struggles in the secondary might be too much to overcome.
Prediction: UCF 48, Houston 38
Podcast: Week 9 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.
(Marquez Stevenson photo courtesy of Houston Athletics)