The Temple Owls and UCF Knights are set to square off Saturday night in Philadelphia, with both bowl eligibility and second place in the American Athletic Conference East Division on the line. Temple fell to undefeated West leader SMU 45-21 in Dallas last week, which dropped the Owls to 5-2 overall and 2-1 in AAC play. UCF beat East Carolina 41-28 to improve to an identical 5-2 overall record, including a 2-1 mark in the conference, but the Knights have no room for error after losing to East leader Cincinnati 27-24 earlier this year.
UCF at Temple
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -10.5
When UCF Has the Ball
UCF true freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel has been a pleasant surprise, having capitalized on an unexpectedly early opportunity for playing time. Gabriel took hold of the starting job in Week 2 this year despite the presence of Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush and sophomore Darriel Mack Jr., who started for the Knights in both the AAC title game and Fiesta Bowl last season (both Wimbush and Mack dealt with early-season injuries). Gabriel ranks second in the conference in passing (285.7 yards per game) and yards per attempt (10.0), which rank No. 12 and No. 8 in the country, respectively. Overall, Gabriel has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns with five interceptions this year.
Gabriel has played very well — especially for a true freshman — but much of his success can be attributed to his supporting cast. In addition to arguably the AAC’s most talented offensive line, receiver Gabriel Davis leads the conference in receiving yards (833) and touchdowns (10) and ranks second with 47 receptions. Tre Nixon sits at No. 7 on the AAC leaderboard with an average of 67.0 receiving yards per game, having snagged 28 passes for 469 yards and four TDs.
The Knights have also spread the wealth among a host of running backs. UCF averages 212.29 rushing yards per game, which ranks fourth in the conference and No. 26 overall. Greg McCrae, Adrian Killins, Jr., Bentavious Thompson, and Otis Anderson have all earned over 40 carries this year. McCrae leads the way with 72 carries, 401 yards, and six touchdowns this season, but he suffered a knee injury in the win over East Carolina and will sit against the Owls. Killins (335 yards, 4 TDs) was sidelined last week with an injury of his own and is questionable to return to the lineup, which leaves Anderson (308 yards, 2 TDs) as the likely top ball carrier and Thompson (315, 3) as the secondary option.
Regardless of which running back carries the load, Temple will pose a tough test. The Owls have allowed just 136.43 rushing yards per game and 3.33 yards per attempt this season, which rank third and second in the conference, respectively. However, Temple has been surprisingly susceptible to the pass in recent weeks, having allowed an average of 410.0 passing yards over the last two games after surrendering 166.8 yards per game through the air in its previous five.
When Temple Has the Ball
Temple isn’t nearly as explosive as UCF offensively, but like the Knights, the Owls have had success thanks to their balance. Quarterback Anthony Russo ranks fifth in the AAC in passing (239.1 ypg), having completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,674 yards and 14 touchdowns with six interceptions — though it’s also worth noting that Russo threw for 409 yards and four TDs in the season opener against Bucknell, which inflated his stats somewhat.
Russo’s three favorite targets — Jadan Blue, Branden Mack, and Isaiah Wright — form one of the top receiving trios in the AAC. Blue leads the team with 42 receptions and 529 yards and has scored twice. Wright (40 receptions, 380 yards), leads the unit with five TD catches, with Mack close behind with four touchdowns among his 38 receptions and 525 yards. True freshman running back Re'Mahn Davis has emerged as the team’s top ball carrier and leads the squad with 629 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 123 attempts. Jager Gardner has four scores and 392 yards on 90 carries.
UCF has proven to be slightly stingier on defense than the Owls. The Knights have allowed 349.7 yards of total offense per game, which ranks fifth in the AAC, and 4.52 yards per snap this season, which leads the conference and ranks among the top 15 nationally. The unit has allowed 212.6 passing yards per game, which ranks a modest 54th in the country, but UCF has held opponents to just 5.3 yards per pass attempt, which is the best in the league by nearly a full yard and ranks third on the FBS leaderboard.
Because last week’s loss to SMU came in a cross-division clash, Temple currently controls its fate in the AAC East. A win over UCF would potentially set up a winner-take-all contest with Cincinnati Nov. 23. But should the Knights prevail, the Bearcats would emerge as heavy favorites to represent the division in the conference championship game. And because Cincinnati holds the tiebreaker, UCF’s back is against the wall.
The Owls have home-field advantage, but fortunately for Knights head coach Josh Heupel, UCF has a more talented roster and more depth across the board — even though he may be without his top two running backs.