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The War on I-4: Previewing #15 UCF vs. USF

It’s the biggest game in the history of the rivalry – winner goes to the AAC Championship Game and has a chance to play in a New Year’s Six game.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Start Time: Black Friday, Nov. 24 at 3:30 p.m.

TV: ABC, baby!

Radio: FM 96.9/AM 740 The Game

Live stats:

Location: Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, Florida.

The Series: It’s 6-2 USF. It rankles Knights fans, undeniably. But it’s one of only a few metrics that USF can cling to when comparing the two programs:

This is the first time in the series that both teams have been excellent at the same time. USF won the first four games when they were in the Big East and UCF was in Conference USA. The Knights had the upper hand in the first two games of the AAC era – including shutting out the Bulls in 2014. USF took the next two, capping UCF’s winless 2015 and beating the Knights by 17 last year.

Betting Odds: UCF opened as a 9.5 point favorite. As of this writing, the Knights are favored by 11.

UCF Knights Outlook

Chas Short: When the season began, no one (including me) gave the Knights a shot to win the division. “In terms of conference standing, finishing second in the east is an attainable goal for the Knights,” I wrote in my season preview.

That was then, this is now.

The Knights have torn through their opponents this year. The notion that the Knights could win the conference and play in a New Year’s Six bowl is very real. But to keep these hopes alive, UCF has to overcome preseason AAC darling USF.

UCF has gotten here largely on the strength of its offense. The Knights lead in nation in scoring with 48.6 points per game. They own the country’s longest streak of games with 30 or more points with ten in a row. McKenzie Milton has exceeded all expectations. He ranks second in passing efficiency (186.1), completion percentage (69.6%), and passing yards per attempt (10.61).

He’s had an impressive (and broad) array of weapons to help him. Adrian Killins, Jr. is the fastest man in college football. Freshman Otis Anderson is a dazzling threat whether lined up in the backfield or at wide receiver. Tre’Quan Smith is an NFL-ready wide receiver.

The defense has more than held up its end of the bargain. The Knights have the number two defense in the conference (behind, you guessed it, USF). It’s a defense that has allowed opponents to move the ball, but prevented scores. Opponents are scoring an average of 20.5 points per game. Shaquem Griffin and Pat Jasinski have stood out at linebacker. In the secondary, Mike Hughes has been a huge boost.

This game isn’t without risk. Flowers has an incredible ability to improvise big plays out of nothing – especially with his legs -- and that could easily pose a problem for a UCF defense that has at times this season tackled poorly (need I remind you of big plays surrendered to SMU and Austin Peay?). Flowers has also been held back by poor playcalling.

And then there’s the question of preparation time. UCF has played football on nine consecutive weeks, having sacrificed a bye week due to Hurricane Irma chaos. And the Knights have a short week, while the Bulls (who last played on Thursday) have a long week to prepare. They also had a bye two weeks ago. This scheduling could be a factor – and not one that benefits the Knights.

USF Bulls Outlook

Nicholas Armstrong: The game is finally here. We all know there is bad blood between the teams, and I don't think there will be any mercy when the two battle for more than just the 160 pound War on I-4 trophy.

USF has to strike early offensively. The outside running ability is going to have to be strong to beat this SEC level D-line led by Jamiyus Pittman. Pure talent is not going to beat an equally talented team. Darius Tice and D'Ernest Johnson are going to have to help Quinton Flowers in the running game. Quinton will get his yards rushing, but this team is at its best when they are running effectively with Tice and Johnson. In the passing game, Flowers is going to need some help. First, he will need help from the coaching staff getting back to the gulf coast offense (a system he is very comfortable with). Screens, short routes, and jet sweeps play a huge role in bringing out the best attribute in this team: speed. The other group he will need help from is his receivers, especially Marquez Valdes-Scantling, in catching the ball. This group has dropped easy first downs and touchdowns all season long. Valdes-Scantling, who could be the best receiver in USF history, needs to help Quinton out by being a reliable target. Tyre McCants is another great receiver and also the best blocking receiver in the country.

The Bulls are going to have to continue the strong defense they have played all year long. Against a Knights offense averaging around 48.6 points a game, the goal is to give the offense a chance. Lucky for the Bulls, UCF hasn't faced a defense like this before. The secondary for USF has been exceptional, and is filled with NFL talent. Deatrick Nichols and Mazzi Wilkins are beasts in coverage and are guaranteed to be lined up with Tre’Quan Smith and Gabriel Davis. The linebacking corps has continued their success in coverage and on blitzes. Auggie Sanchez is the captain of the unit and is now the leading tackler in USF history, while Nico Sawtelle has had a great year of his own. Lastly, the front four is another solid unit. Deadrin Senat, Bruce Hector, Mike Love, and Greg Reaves have all been exceptional. The goal of this unit is to make McKenzie Milton beat them with his arm. It sounds crazy, as that is UCF's strength, but USF is super confident in their secondary. Stopping Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson is the biggest goal in my mind, as well as having a linebacker spy Milton on a read option. If this defense can stop the run, I like USF's chances to hang with UCF.

Final Predictions

Chas: USF has played only one other good team this year - Houston. They lost 28-24. And they’ve not generally played complete games. They won’t start now. The Knights have already proven they can beat good opponents, and they’ve blown out most of their opponents. I trust UCF’s greater margin for error here. UCF 38, USF 28.

Nicholas: If USF plays like last week's second half team, UCF will win by a ridiculous number. But I think USF will finally put it altogether this week. There is so much on the line for USF, and if they can't win with the best quarterback in school history, then who can they win with? USF takes one of the closest game in the history of the rivalry. USF 38, UCF 34.