The UCF Knights were left out of the initial 2019 College Football Playoff rankings, but there's still a glimmer of hope for a third consecutive American Athletic Conference championship and a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl game. UCF improved to 7-2 overall and 4-1 in AAC play by beating Houston 44-29 last week. Of course, the Knights have zero room for error, meaning that this week’s cross-division clash with the Tulsa Golden Hurricane is a must-win.
Tulsa’s bowl hopes were dashed in a 38-26 loss on the road against Tulane last week. Though they've often been competitive, the Golden Hurricane sit at 2-7 overall and 0-5 in conference play and have now lost five straight.
UCF at Tulsa
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -17
When UCF Has the Ball
Simply put, the UCF offense is one of the best in all of college football. The Knights lead the AAC and rank No. 5 nationally in scoring offense (46.3 ppg), and they rank second in the country in total offense (551.0 total yards per game). UCF has averaged 7.26 yards per play, which ranks sixth in FBS.
The Knights can do it all. With true freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel leading the way, UCF leads the AAC and ranks eighth nationally in passing offense (324.9 ypg). Gabriel ranks second in the conference in passing (279.6 ypg) and is tied for the conference lead with 23 touchdown passes. He has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 2,516 yards with only five interceptions, having averaged an impressive 10.0 yards per attempt, which ranks No. 7 in the country.
And while Gabriel receives a lot of the credit for the Knights success, he also relies heavily on arguably the most talented offensive line in the conference, and a host of talented playmakers elsewhere. Top receiver Gabriel Davis leads the AAC in receiving (106.9 ypg) and is tied for the AAC lead with 10 touchdowns among his 53 receptions. Tre Nixon ranks No. 9 in the league with an average of 69.7 receiving yards per game.
Four UCF running backs — Otis Anderson, Bentavious Thompson, Greg McCrae, and Adrian Killins Jr. — all rank among the top 17 in the AAC in rushing. Anderson, whose production has increased in recent weeks because of injuries to McCrae and Killins, leads the way and ranks 11th in the AAC with 60.33 yards per contest on the ground. Thompson leads the squad with seven rushing touchdowns and an average of 8.05 yards per carry.
When Tulsa Has the Ball
Tulsa has had some success offensively, ranking No. 7 in the league in total offense (403.8 ypg), but has struggled with consistency. The Golden Hurricane rank No. 11 in the AAC in scoring (23.8 ppg) and last in the league in yards per play (5.01), numbers that rank No. 100 and No. 106, respectively, in the nation.
Quarterback Zach Smith, in his first season with the Golden Hurricane after transferring from Baylor, ranks fourth in the AAC in passing (271.1) having completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 2,440 yards and 12 touchdowns with six interceptions. Receiver Keylon Stokes has been Smith’s primary target, hauling in 47 receptions for 773 yards and five touchdowns. Stokes ranks fourth in the AAC in receiving (85.9 ypg), while fellow wideout Sam Crawford Jr. (59.0) ranks No. 13 in the league. Running back Shamari Brooks ranks fifth in the AAC in rushing (83.67 ypg), having gained 753 rushing yards and scoring five times on 178 carries.
UCF not only has an edge on offense, but the Knights also have one of the best defenses in the AAC. UCF leads the AAC and ranks No. 13 in the country in yards allowed per play (4.53). The Golden Hurricane, meanwhile, have allowed 5.93 yards per snap, which ranks 88th in the country and No. 9 in the conference.
Nevertheless, Tulsa played well against the three AAC teams that were ranked by the CFP committee. The Golden Hurricane lost to No. 25 SMU 43-37 in triple overtime, played No. 20 Cincinnati close in a 21-13 loss, and fell to No. 21 Memphis 42-41 after missing a last-second field goal. Tulsa also lost to No. 23 Oklahoma State 40-21 in a game that was closer than the final margin would indicate. So there’s reason to believe the Golden Hurricane can give UCF a close game.
However, UCF is heavily favored for a reason. The Knights are more talented, more consistent and more efficient on both sides of the football, and though Tulsa has a significant advantage given the distance UCF must travel, the Knights have a motivational edge given their conference title and bowl hopes. Expect UCF to win and stay relevant in both races.
Prediction: UCF 42, Tulsa 24
(Top photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)