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The War on I-4: Previewing UCF-USF

UCF will need more out of its offense to keep pace with a high-scoring USF team.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Start Time: Saturday, November 25, 2016 at Noon EST.

Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL.

TV/Streaming: CBSSN.

Radio/Live Stats: 96.9 FM/ 740 AM in Orlando and 134/201 on Sirius/XM. Check over here for live stats.

Odds: USF opened as a 9.5 point favorite and is now a 10 point favorite.

Records: UCF is 6-5, 4-3 in the AAC. USF is 9-2 and 6-1 in the AAC.

All-Time Series: The Bulls are 5-2 all-time in the War on I-4. USF owned this series in the pre-AAC days, going 3-0. But the Knights have the 2-1 edge in the AAC era.

It’s official this year, “War on I-4” (thankfully we can bury the wretchedly inorganic “I-4 Corridor Clash” that some tried to push). There’s a rivalry trophy and everything. Two, actually – one for football and one for all sports.

Last year the Bulls blasted the Knights 44-3, in a game where the Knights could not do a damn thing. But the last time the game was played in Tampa, the UCF won 16-0 – it was USF’s first ever shutout loss at home.

Let’s talk about the stakes for a moment. For UCF, this is the Spite Bowl. Look here:

The Bulls are on the cusp of finally being able to put something on this chart – a ten win season. It would be historic for the USF, a program which is hard up for meaningful milestones. And I mean hard up for milestones. USF’s media notes highlights that the Bulls “Reached No. 2 ranking in 2007,” despite the fact that they promptly lost three in a row and ultimately ended the season with a Sun Bowl loss to Oregon.

USF might get the tenth win in a bowl game anyway, it’s true. But a UCF win here also eliminates USF from winning the AAC East, even if Temple stumbles against ECU.

UCF Outlook: Here is where I am forced to be a realist – it’s doubtful that the Knights can pull off the win against the Bulls.

As I observed when we previewed the Tulsa game, UCF has not beaten a genuinely good team yet this year. The Knights do not have a win against a team currently ranked higher than 96 per the S&P+. The Knights do not have a win against a team with a better record than 4-7. We’ve beaten the bad teams on the schedule but lost to all the good ones.

Which is not to say that we should be unhappy – this is a team that has exceeded expectations in the rebound from an ugly 0-12 season last year. But the odds are long against USF.

The offense is the problem. It ranks an abysmal 117th per S&P+. The Knights have demonstrated an inability to sustain drives and suffer from crippling third down inefficiency. UCF has converted 55 of 177 third downs, a mere 31.1%. That clocks in at 122nd in the country, ahead of only Rutgers, Texas State, Arkansas State, Bowling Green, Illinois, and Tulane. Not good.

Under DC Erik Chinander (Broyles Award nominee!), defense has been the strength of the team. The switch to a base 3-4 has been great for the Knights and especially Shaquem Griffin who has blossomed with the switch to linebacker this year. UCF’s defense is legitimately top 25 but has been asked to do too much, too often. That was obvious last week against Tulsa, when the defense joined the offense in fading in the second half. And it’s been true in losses against Houston and Temple. This defense will be asked to do an awful lot on Saturday against a stellar USF offense.

If the Knights win, it’s going to take a much better performance than normal from the offense. And probably a defensive touchdown or special teams touchdown (fortunately, those have not been all that uncommon for UCF).

USF Outlook: The Bulls have improved each year under head coach Willie Taggart (2-10, 4-8, 8-5, 9-2 and pending). Though they can’t win the division without help from ECU, they’re a dangerous team.

The Bulls are sort of the inverse of the Knights: outstanding offense (2nd per S&P+) and unimpressive defense (104th per S&P+).

Quarterback Quinton Flowers has thrown for 2,399 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. It’s one of the best rushing performances by a quarterback in FBS history. Running back Marlon Mack has also been excellent with 982 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns of his own. Limiting USF’s offense is going to be a tough task for a UCF defense that is better against the pass (19th per S&P+) than the run (89th per S&P+).

Fortunately, USF is dead last in the AAC in total yards allowed per game with an average of 489.4. The Bulls have especially struggled in stopping the run. Which means that there’s an opportunity for UCF RBs Jawon Hamilton, Dontravious Wilson, and Adrian Killins. Part of UCF’s poor performance on offense stems from the inability to run successfully on early downs, leaving the Knights behind the chains and struggling on third down. If UCF can sustain drives against a sometimes porous Bulls’ defense, that could be key. USF’s two losses have come against teams that were able to squat on the ball and keep USF’s offense off the field – FSU (40:19 time of possession to USF’s 19:41) and Temple (39:07 time of possession to USF’s 20:53).

Prediction: The Knights have a shot if they’ve got a two touchdown lead by the end of the first half. UCF has tended to fade in the second, so if there’s not an adequate cushion, things could easily get ugly.

Me? I see us hanging tight for a while before USF pulls away. I’ll put it down as a 42-30 loss, and hope to be wrong.