When the College Football Playoff rankings were revealed Tuesday, two AAC teams saw their logos appear on the screen. UCF fans are rather accustomed to tuning into this program, as the Knights were a fixture in the CFP rankings during back-to-back New Year’s Six appearances in 2017 and 2018. Tulane is very new to the process, garnering its first ever CFP ranking earlier this month.
But as the only ranked AAC teams, No. 17 Tulane and No. 22 UCF aren’t just competing for a ticket to the AAC Championship Game. They are also battling for one of the 12 coveted spots in a New Year’s Six bowl, which seems destined to go to the AAC champion this year for the sixth season in a row.
The AAC title race and New Year’s Six race are highly contingent upon the result which transpires in New Orleans on Saturday. While the game was snubbed of a potential College GameDay appearance, the 3:30 pm ET/2:30 pm CT showdown in New Orleans remains one of the most crucial matchups in Week 11’s Saturday slate. So, here are questions and storylines to watch going into the matchup:
What does UCF’s quarterback situation look like?
Somewhat lost in the celebration of UCF’s season-changing win over Cincinnati on Oct. 29 was the fact that the Knights lost their starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. He exited the contest in the second quarter after suffering a concussion, making room for Mikey Keene in the starting lineup.
Prior to that game, Keene hadn’t taken a snap for UCF in 2022. But he started 10 games as a true freshman in 2021 and won seven times, including a Gasparilla Bowl win over Florida. Keene captained a game-winning drive to knock off the Bearcats and delivered several crunch-time throws in the process. He won his first start of the season at Memphis last Saturday by delivering three touchdowns on an accurate 22-of-28 showing.
Now that Plumlee is available for the Tulane game, what does UCF do at quarterback? Plumlee has been a dynamic playmaker throughout the season, and is the high-risk, high-reward option for Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense. The Ole Miss transfer has four 300-yard performances in his seven full games as a starter and has shown the ability to add verticality to the offense. But, Plumlee’s non-300-yard showings have been a different showing. In those games, his completion percentage is 56 percent with zero touchdown passes and five interceptions. He also displays greater dual-threat tendencies as he enters Saturday tied for the team-lead in rushing yards.
Keene hasn’t been the home run hitter for UCF’s offense, but he makes smart decisions for the offense, which explains the Knights’ 8-3 record under his reign as a starter. His career high in the passing department is still only 229 yards, but he maintains impressive accuracy and completes passes at a 75.5 percent clip this year.
Will Keene retain the starting role after delivering in consecutive games? Will Plumlee regain his spot? Will there be a rotating quarterback scheme throughout the afternoon? The possibilities are endless.
Which version of Tulane’s passing offense will we see?
Tulane’s offense fluctuates in style from week-to-week. We’ve seen the Green Wave as a strong rushing team captained by longtime veteran running back Tyjae Spears. Spears is on a roll right now with three consecutive games featuring 125+ rushing yards and at least one rushing touchdown. Containing the electrifying back is the main point of emphasis for most defenses. UCF fields the 27th ranked rush defense and usually excels at stifling handoffs.
So if Tulane is called to win this game through the air, what will Tulane’s passing offense look like? Third-year starting quarterback Michael Pratt has proven the ability to take over games with 300-yard performances before, like he did in double-digit victories over East Carolina and South Florida. Operating against the nation’s 89th ranked pass defense, this is an area Tulane must gain an advantage in order to win.
Will Pratt be able to collect significant yardage through the air and stretch the field? If so, that should put the Green Wave in position to retain their undefeated AAC record. But we have seen Tulane’s passing offense stall at times this year, especially in non-conference play against Kansas State and Southern Miss, where inaccuracy and turnovers infested the passing attack, and Tulane had to rely heavily on its defense. The inability to spark this element of the offense ultimately hampered the Green Wave in their 2021 meeting at UCF, as the team finished with 147 yards passing on 28 attempts.
Do the Knights remain potent on defense amidst injuries?
Until the East Carolina game, UCF’s defense was in the midst of an impressive streak. From the tail-end of 2021 through six games of 2022, the Knights hadn’t allowed more than 20 points in a single outing. The nine-game stretch was ultimately snapped in Greenville, but the Knights rebounded to deliver another suffocating defensive performance to upend Cincinnati the following week.
But now UCF must rely on its juggernaut defense without some of the most important faces. Outside linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and free safety Quadric Bullard were among the starters which suffered injuries in last week’s 35-28 win over Memphis. Jean-Baptiste is one of the architects of UCF’s stellar run defense, and he ranks second on the Knights in tackles, while showing versatility at the linebacker position with five tackles for loss and four pass breakups.
Bullard is a ferocious tackler in the secondary with strong closing speed. He has been lethal on special teams as well with two touchdowns off of blocked punts, and if unable to go, the Knights will miss his ability to thrive as the last line of defense against opposing running backs. Look for Jarvis Ware, who collected six tackles at Memphis, to step up in Bullard’s spot if the injury sustains.
How much of a factor does the Yulman atmosphere play?
The College GameDay possibility seemed in the works, but ultimately, college football’s beloved pregame show chose Austin, TX as the destination for the second time this season, awaiting the primetime Big 12 showdown between Texas and undefeated TCU.
While that would have amplified the atmosphere in New Orleans this Saturday, this will still be as raucous of a crowd we’ve seen at Tulane in quite some time. Most Green Wave fans can’t recall the last time Tulane hosted a matchup between ranked teams, because it’s been 73 years. Per Underdog Dynasty’s own Emily Van Buskirk, a ranked Green Wave squad last played at home against a ranked opponent in 1949 when LSU strolled into town. So, expect an unforeseen atmosphere at Yulman Stadium as Willie Fritz’s team continues its New Year’s Six push.
And how will that atmosphere affect the game? As recent AAC Championship Games suggest, home field advantage is pertinent to winning significant matchups in this conference. The home team in the conference title game has won five consecutive times, and all but one matchup between ranked AAC opponents since 2017 has gone in favor of the host.
Can Yulman Stadium reach a noise level where false starts and pre-snap penalties start to plague UCF, like we saw when Cincinnati visited Orlando in 2018? We’ll see, but New Orleans should be one of the hubs for college football craziness this Saturday.