In what might be the biggest regular season game in the American Athletic Conference this season, Tulane will play host to UCF on Saturday. The top two teams in the conference standings will meet at Yulman Stadium for a contest that will likely have huge title game implications.
At 8-1 and coming in at No. 17 in this week's College Football Playoff Rankings, Tulane is off to its best start since 1998. For perspective's sake, Tommy Bowden was a second-year head coach and Shaun King was a senior quarterback. Meanwhile, UCF is 7-2 and checks in at No. 22 following back-to-back close wins over Cincinnati and Memphis since getting drubbed at East Carolina.
All-time, UCF holds a commanding 9-2 series lead over the Green Wave. The Knights have won the last four in the series, but two of the last three have been decided by four points or fewer. A fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Mikey Keene to Brandon Johnson was ultimately the difference last season in Orlando as UCF had to rally for a 14-10 victory over a Tulane team that finished just 2-10.
No. 22 UCF at No. 17 Tulane
When UCF Has the Ball
Entering Saturday, it is unclear whether UCF starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee will be healthy, but either way, the Knights are in good shape under center. Plumlee is an outstanding athlete who is tied for the team lead in rushing, but Keene is experienced and has performed admirably in relief in recent weeks. Through two games, Keene has completed 75.5 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and just one interception. Ryan O'Keefe, Javon Baker, and Kobe Hudson are a solid trio of receivers for whoever gets the start behind center. O'Keefe, the team's leader in receptions and yards, is the quintessential possession receiver. Tied for the team lead with four touchdown grabs apiece, Baker and Hudson are more capable of stretching the field.
Throughout the country, UCF is one of the nation's more balanced teams. The Knights lead the AAC in rushing yards per game, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns. They rank eighth nationally in rushing yards per game and do so by committee. Plumlee is a key component to the ground game, but if he is unable to go, RJ Harvey and Isaiah Bowser serve as a solid thunder-and-lightning combination. Harvey's 532 yards is tied for the team rushing lead, but he is also averaging almost 14 yards per catch out of the backfield. Bowser, a bruising 225-pound senior, leads the conference with 11 rushing touchdowns.
When it comes to total and scoring defense, Tulane is the best that the AAC has. The Green Wave lead the conference in both categories, yielding 16.9 points per game and 307.3 yards. Tulane doesn't have a prolific pass rusher, but Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson are quietly one of the best duos of linebackers in the AAC. Williams leads the team with 71 tackles and four sacks.
In the secondary, the Green Wave are a hard-hitting bunch who do a decent job of taking the ball away. Larry Brooks and Macon Clark are nasty at safety. The duo, along with Jarius Moore, all have two interceptions for the season. Anderson and Clark both have a pair of forced fumbles this season. In last season's 14-10 loss, Tulane held UCF to just 279 yards of offense. Patrick Jenkins is probably the best that Tulane has up front.
When Tulane Has the Ball
After a bit of a sophomore slump, Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt looks like the potential-laden signal-caller that helped the Green Wave reach a bowl in 2020. A talented passer and a pretty good athlete, Pratt has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes this season and has 19 total touchdowns to just four interceptions. He ranks second in the AAC in passer rating and by just a narrow margin behind Houston's Clayton Tune. Pratt does an excellent job of spreading the ball around, as Tulane currently has six players with at least 209 yards receiving this year. Shae Wyatt leads the team with 383 yards on a conference-leading 19.1 yards per catch. Duece Watts and tight end Tyrick James are tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches apiece.
Emerging as perhaps the best player for the Tulane offense in recent weeks, Tyjae Spears has rushed for at least 125 yards in each of the last three games, including 157 yards in last week's 27-13 win over Tulsa. Spears, who scored the lone Tulane touchdown in last season's loss to UCF, ranks second behind only Bowser in the AAC with 10 rushing touchdowns. He's also second in rushing yards in the conference with 745 yards for the season. Spears is a serviceable receiver out of the backfield. Pratt, Iverson Celestine, and Shaadie Clayton-Johnson have done a nice job supplementing Spears in the ground attack.
Like Tulane, UCF doesn't register many sacks but does just about everything else well defensively. Up front, however, Tre'Mon Morris-Brash is an absolute load to block. Morris-Brash leads the Knights with five sacks but is causing havoc even when he doesn't make the play. Josh Celiscar is also a very talented player on the edge. Linebacker Jason Johnson's 85 tackles lead the team and rank third in the conference. Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste is also a dependable player at the position for UCF.
UCF ranks second in the AAC in scoring defense and third in total defense. The strength for UCF may be in the secondary. Davonte Brown and Divaad Wilson are a solid duo of cover cornerbacks. Wilson's three interceptions are tied for the AAC lead. Corey Thornton has also made a handful of plays in coverage this season. Safety Quadric Bullard is a very good player in the deepest part of the secondary. The kicking game could play a key role on Saturday. Both teams missed field goals in last season's contest. Colton Boomer has provided a nice spark for UCF while Rutgers transfer Valentino Ambrosio has missed just a single kick all season. Bullard and Tulane's Jha'Quan Jackson have combined for three punt returns for touchdowns this season.
Keene is fully capable of getting the job done for UCF this weekend, but Plumlee's mobility could be a game-changer. Ultimately, Saturday's game will likely come down to which team can run the ball best and commits the fewest mistakes. Both schools have nice stables of backs. UCF probably needs this one a little more. With a loss, the Knights would lose control of their own destiny in the AAC. This will be the biggest home game for Tulane in some time, but head coach Gus Malzahn and UCF have done very well in big games in recent years.
Prediction: UCF 24, Tulane 21
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.
*Price as of publication.