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Previewing the Cure Bowl: UCF Knights versus Arkansas State Red Wolves

The Cure Bowl ought to be a defensive struggle despite two head coaches better known for their offense.

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

Start Time: Saturday, December 17, 2016 at 5:30 PM Eastern/4:30 PM Central.

Location: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL. The former home venue of the (then-Golden) Knights, and home to UCF stories both wonderful and strange.

TV/Streaming: CBS Sports Network

Radio: FM 96.9 The Game (Orlando)

Odds: UCF opened as a 6.5 point favorite, and now ranges between a 6 and 7 point favorite depending where you’re inclined to look.

Records: Arkansas State is 7-5 and, at 7-1 in the Sun Belt, has a share of their conference title. UCF is 6-6 (4-4 in the American Athletic Conference).

All-Time Series: 1-0, Knights. UCF beat Arkansas State 31-20 back in 1991.

About the Cure Bowl: This will only be the second Cure Bowl played. Last year, the bowl hosted a 27-16 win by San Jose State over Georgia State. It was the only bowl game to ever end with two teams with losing records. But it ended up pretty good actually:

This game took two historically meh teams that had never heard of each other, plopped them in a cavernously empty stadium in not-as-warm-as-you-thought Florida, and told them they were playing for a trophy that didn't exist last year.

Yet the players and fans and coaches acted as if it meant the world.

The bowl appears financially solvent, and then some. Over a million real dollars went to charity.

This match-up is more compelling. Arkansas State has been dominant in the Sun Belt for years, again winning a share of the conference title. UCF is playing across town from its campus in its former home venue, in a bowl for which the Executive Director Alan Gooch is a former Knights DB, assistant coach, and (briefly) interim head coach.

UCF Outlook: First year head coach Scott Frost has the UCF program energized and has engineered an impressive rebound from last year’s winless, hopeless, and joyless slog. Despite Frost’s reputation as an offense-minded coach, the strength of the team has been DC Erik Chinander’s defense. UCF’s most productive player (on either side of the ball) has been one-handed linebacker and AAC defensive player of the year Shaquem Griffin. The offense has been largely dysfunctional and has struggled to execute. Freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton can be very good at times, but he can also make a ton of mistakes.

But what if I told you I thought third downs were going to be critical in the Cure Bowl, and that this would somehow favor the Knights? Now to be clear, the Knights are ranked 123rd in the country on converting third downs. But Arkansas State also stinks at third down conversions. In fact, The Red Wolves are one of only five teams worse than the Knights. The UCF defense however is ranked seventh in third down conversion defense – opposing teams are converting only about 30% of them against the Knights.

The thing about this UCF team though is that they haven’t beaten a good team all year. Wins have come against South Carolina State (5-6), FIU (4-8), ECU (3-9), UConn (3-9), Tulane (4-8), and Cincinnati (4-8). Not even the FCS school has a winning record. None of these teams are ranked better than 91 in S&P+.

But Arkansas State’s S&P+ ranking? Oh, that’s 92.

Arkansas State Outlook: The Red Wolves have dominated the Sun Belt in recent years, either winning outright or sharing the conference title five of the last six years. They’ve benefited from a string of excellent but short term coaches - Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin, and now Blake Anderson.

Anderson is known for a focus on offense. And yet, like the Knights, defense has emerged as the strength of this Arkansas State team. The defensive ends - Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Chris Odom are nasty in all the best ways. But on the other side of the ball, the offensive line has struggled in run blocking and pass protection. And of course there’s the poor performance on third down. It’s going to be crucial for the line to open run lanes and protect QB Justice Hansen and move the ball consistently.

The Red Wolves started slow this year with an 0-4 start. And that wasn’t a murderous, front-loaded schedule. I’ll grant you Auburn, but the other three early losses came against Toledo, Utah State, and Central Arkansas. But Arkansas State turned it on through the conference schedule, with only a few being close – a one point game against Georgia Southern went Arkansas State’s way, and a five point loss at ULL. The margins in-conference were mostly comfortable for this team.

Prediction: I foresee a defensive struggle. Both offenses are cripplingly flawed on third down. But I suspect that UCF edges it out, perhaps with a critical turnover or two. I’ll go UCF 24, Arkansas State 20.

For more on the Cure Bowl, you can check out our UCF: Get to Know the Foe over here.