The last time that UCF and Louisville met, it decided the outcome of the American Athletic Conference. It came in 2013 — the first year that the conference had evolved from the old Big East. It was also on a Friday night as UCF erased a 21-point deficit to stun No. 8 Louisville 38-35, thanks to a late touchdown pass from Blake Bortles to Jeff Godfrey.
Eight years later and the circumstances are different as the Cardinals host the Knights on Friday night. UCF is off to a 2-0 start for the fifth straight season. After getting drubbed by Ole Miss to open the year, Louisville improved to 1-1 last week with a 30-3 victory over FCS Eastern Kentucky.
Although the teams briefly shared a conference, this will be just the third meeting between them. They split the first two, with Louisville's victory coming back in 1985. That was just UCF's seventh season as a program and 11 years before it became an FBS member.
UCF at Louisville
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -7
When UCF Has the Ball
It's become a tradition that the UCF offense can score with the nation's best. Lefty quarterback Dillon Gabriel ranks 11th nationally in passing yards per game and is the focal point of the offense. Gabriel lost virtually his entire backfield behind him, but Isaiah Bowser has stepped right in to produce. A Northwestern transfer, Bowser had a monster game in the 36-31 comeback victory over Boise State to open the season with 172 rushing yards. As an encore last week, he simply scored four touchdowns in a 63-14 victory over FCS Bethune-Cookman. With five on the season, Bowser ranks second nationally in rushing touchdowns behind only Duke's Mataeo Durant.
Overshadowed by teammate Marlon Williams last season, Jaylon Robinson is one of the best receivers in the American Athletic Conference — if not the country. He has a nice pair of complements in Ryan O'Keefe and Brandon Johnson. Six different receivers have caught a touchdown for UCF this season. Johnson, a Tennessee transfer, is the only one to catch two. Cole Schneider anchors an offensive line that has allowed just four sacks and helped the Knights average better than six yards per carry on the ground.
After giving up nearly 600 yards to Ole Miss in the opener, Louisville had a nice bounce-back game defensively last week against FCS Eastern Kentucky. Linebacker C.J. Avery is the veteran leader for the Cardinals and ranks second on the team with 13 total tackles behind only Georgia Southern transfer Kenderick Duncan Jr. The Cardinals were dismal on defense last season but have allowed just 20 total points in their last six quarters of football. UCF will certainly put the defense to the test.
One player tasked with covering UCF's talented corps of wide receivers is Kei'Trel Clark. The 180-pound cornerback was named ACC Co-Defensive Back of the Week after recording two interceptions in last week's win over the Colonels. The defense has been an issue for Louisville in each of the last three seasons. Louisville has allowed at least 40 points in 12 of its last 17 losses. It will probably need to keep the Knights in the low 30s to have any realistic chance on Friday night.
When Louisville Has the Ball
The season did not start well for Louisville, but over its last six quarters, it has put up 54 points. The Cardinals had to replace a ton of talent at the skill positions this year, but quarterback Malik Cunningham is an experienced signal-caller and a very good athlete. Cunningham has a history of being turnover-prone but has just one interception this season in 60 pass attempts. He has six total touchdowns with four coming on the ground. Hassan Hall and Jalen Mitchell will help power the ground game.
Louisville came into the season with serious questions up front but has held its own thus far. Through two games, the Cardinals have yielded just three sacks. Center Cole Bentley headlines that unit. At wide receiver, the Cardinals had to replace the likes of Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick, but freshman Ahmari Huggins-Bruce has emerged as a big-play threat. For the season, Huggins-Bruce has 169 yards, including a long of 93, on just six catches. He'll be the guy to watch for the Knights, as he ranks third in the ACC in receiving yards and eighth nationally at 28.1 yards per catch. Braden Smith has been quiet as a receiver thus far but did return a punt for a touchdown in last week's win.
With one of the nation's most potent offenses, the UCF defense tends to play without a lot of pressure on it. The Knights aren't great on that side of the ball, but they rarely have to be. UCF is just one of seven teams nationally that have yet to record a sack. Auburn transfer Big Kat Bryant was supposed to help in that regard but has yet to get to the quarterback this season.
At linebacker, Eriq Gilyard also is off to a quiet start. Despite pedestrian numbers so far, Gilyard can really play. If there is one thing that UCF does better than just about everyone in the country, it's take the ball away. UCF is traditionally among the top teams in the country when it comes to turnover margin. Through two games, however, the Knights have forced just two turnovers — interceptions from Tatum Bethune and Dyllon Lester.
In terms of scheme and depth, the UCF offense is very similar to Ole Miss', which put up 569 yards and 43 points on Louisville on Labor Day evening. The Cardinals have played six pretty good quarters of football and should have a decent amount of confidence coming in. Being able to keep up with UCF's high-octane attack, however, will be no small feat. Areas like turnovers and special teams will probably have to go Louisville's way on Friday night. Even at home, the Cardinals may not have enough firepower or defensive stops to keep up with the Knights.
Prediction: UCF 41, Louisville 31
Podcast: Recapping Week 2 + All of the Numbers to Know in College Football
— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.