Knights eye fourth straight win over rival Bulls in regular-season finale
The 2020 college football season has been unlike any other. One constant however, will be the "War on I-4" being played after Thanksgiving.
The UCF Knights will wrap up their regular season on Friday against the USF Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. The Knights are coming off a hard-fought loss to No. 7 Cincinnati but will try to finish strong against their longtime rival that is the only remaining American Athletic Conference team without a victory in league play.
Since winning the opener against The Citadel, Jeff Scott's team has dropped seven straight contests. UCF comes in with a 5-3 record and a three-game winning streak over the Bulls. The last two wins for the Knights in the series have come by 28 and 27 points, respectively.
UCF at USF
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -25
When UCF Has the Ball
UCF enters Saturday's game ranking behind only Kent State nationally in total offense. UCF is led by sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel and an outstanding group of skill players, the Knights are also in the top 15 in scoring offense. Last week against Cincinnati, Gabriel may have had his worst game of the season but still threw for 243 yards and three touchdowns. Gabriel leads the nation with 3,017 passing yards and is second to only Florida's Kyle Trask with 28 touchdown passes. That's compared to just three interceptions.
Gabriel passed for 270 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last season's 34-7 win over the Bulls but had plenty of help from his ground attack. The Knights added 232 rushing yards in that game. They have a talented backfield duo this season in Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson. The same is true out wide where Jaylon Robinson and Marlon Williams each rank in the top six nationally in receiving yards. Williams is one of two receivers in the country to already eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. His 10 touchdown catches also ranks second nationally.
The Bulls are in the top half of the AAC in total defense but give up more points per game than any team in the conference at 37.6 per contest. South Florida hasn't given up fewer than 34 points in any game since Oct. 3. UCF has scored less than that just twice all year. With 47 tackles, three sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles, junior linebacker Antonio Grier is the leader of the USF defense and will need a season-best effort.
USF struggles to stop the run but has a pretty nice secondary, ranking fourth in the AAC with just 7.4 yards allowed per passing attempt. Sophomore cornerback Daquan Evans ranks third in the conference with three interceptions this season and ranks second in the country with 138 interception return yards, which includes a touchdown. Senior Mike Hampton is also a solid player at corner. The Bulls have a pair of capable safeties as well in Mekhi LaPointe and Bentlee Sanders.
When USF Has the Ball
Scott was known for his prowess as offensive coordinator at Clemson, but his USF offense is a work in progress. The Bulls rank just 10th out of 11 AAC teams in scoring and total offense. Jordan McCloud and Noah Johnson have each spent a decent amount of time behind center, but downfield throws have been few and far between. The two are averaging around six yards per pass attempt. USF has had a 200-yard passer just twice this season.
Neither USF quarterback has gotten much help from the ground attack. The Bulls average just 3.8 yards per carry. Johnny Ford has carried the load so far this season for USF with 285 yards and three touchdowns. At receiver, four different players have between 200 and 250 yards receiving, with freshman Omarion Dollison leading the way at 249 yards.
Since a rough start, UCF seems to be figuring things out defensively. In their first four conference games, the Knights allowed an average of 36.5 yards per game. In the three since, the average has been just 23.3 points per contest. If there is a sore spot, the Knights aren't great when it comes to rushing the passer. Kenny Turnier and Cam Goode are the best two that UCF has in that category. The two have combined for seven sacks.
Although UCF hasn't been great generating pressure, it has been opportunistic. The Knights have forced 20 turnovers, which is tied with Syracuse for the most in the country. Safety Richie Grant is UCF's best defensive player. He leads the team with 65 tackles and three interceptions and has added a pair of forced fumbles and recoveries. Linebacker Eriq Gilyard is tied for the national lead with three forced fumbles.
A rough season for South Florida won't get any easier this week in what could be its final time in front of the — albeit small — home crowd. USF doesn't give up a lot of yards but has been put in bad situations on defense all year long, and the Knights' ability to create takeaways should lead to more of the same on Friday. UCF will probably win this one going away, and if you're looking for a feel-good story, this could be a golden opportunity for UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton to make his triumphant return. It was against the Bulls that he suffered a horrific leg injury two years ago.
Prediction: UCF 55, USF 20
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.