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2022 AAC Championship Game Preview: UCF Knights @ Tulane Green Wave

It’s a New Year’s Six regular vs. a newcomer. A Cotton Bowl bid awaits the winner in New Orleans.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Tulane Rebecca Warren-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, December 2 at 4:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ABC
  • Location: Yulman Stadium — New Orleans, LA
  • Spread: Tulane (-4)
  • ESPN FPI: Tulane has 59.3% chance to win
  • All-time series: UCF leads, 10-2
  • Last meeting: UCF 38, Tulane 31 — November 12, 2022
  • Current streak: UCF, 5 (2016-21)

Setting the scene

One side represents the American Conference past. It identifies by its conference championships, its New Year’s Six bowl appearances, its undefeated regular seasons, and its disruptive nature in the College Football Playoff conversation — a young program carrying a tagline that reads “the future of college football”. This is the final AAC Championship Game for the Big 12 bound UCF Knights, which are no stranger to living in the spotlight. This is the third AAC title game in six years for UCF, and with a win over Tulane, the Knights are bound to compete in their fourth BCS or New Year’s Six bowl since the inception of the conference in 2013.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - UCF v Auburn
The winner of Saturday’s AAC title game goes to the Cotton Bowl. UCF participated in back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, with a win over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The other side represents the American Conference future. The 2022 season is a year of firsts for a program that was an afterthought for the majority of its time in the AAC. First ranking since 1998, first win over a ranked opponent since 1984... and the list can continue if the Tulane Green Wave win their first-ever AAC title. The Green Wave are striving for their first appearance in a New Year’s Six or BCS bowl, a feat the unblemished 1998 team cannot even claim. With its familiar backdrop of New Orleans decorating this conference championship game and its head coach electing to remain in the Big Easy, Tulane hopes to utilize such advantages to make more history for the up-and-coming program.

It’s one of five ranked conference championships this weekend as UCF wields a No. 22 ranking from the College Football Playoff committee while Tulane carries a No. 18 next to its name. Both head coaches, UCF’s Gus Malzahn and Tulane’s Willie Fritz, are both first-time participants in this event.

The winner is bound for the Cotton Bowl.

Reliving the prior matchup

Exactly half of the 10 conference championship games set to transpire this weekend are rematches. There’s the old age which states, “It’s hard to beat a team twice,” but just how hard has it been in recent AAC Championship Games? In 2019, Memphis defeated Cincinnati in consecutive weeks to clinch hosting duties for, and subsequently win, the AAC title. In 2018 and 2017, UCF swept Memphis 2-0 with thrilling shootout victories in Orlando to win the conference crown.

Those are the only three instances of rematches in the event’s seven-year history. But one thing those past AAC title games had in common involved the victor of the first matchup serving as the conference championship game host. This time, it’s different. UCF will make the trek to New Orleans for the second time this season after already upending Tulane on the road, 38-31, on Nov. 12.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Tulane
UCF defeated Tulane 38-31 on Nov. 12 at Yulman Stadium thanks to 336 rushing yards as a collective unit.
Rebecca Warren-USA TODAY Sports

That matchup was a wire-to-wire victory for the Knights, which used the backing of many of a UCF-heavy crowd in New Orleans to hand Tulane its only AAC loss. Run defense was one of the calling cards for Tulane heading into the contest, but UCF gashed the Green Wave on the ground to the tune of 336 rushing yards and four touchdowns, led quarterback John Rhys Plumlee’s 176 yards on an average of 9.8 yards per carry. The Knights led by as many as 17 points in the first half and despite forcing a pair of opportune fumbles, they were unable to capitalize on takeaways to make the margin even more lopsided.

After being trampled on for an entire afternoon by UCF’s ground game, Tulane hopes to make the necessary adjustments in Saturday’s rematch at Yulman Stadium.

UCF Knights outlook

All UCF needed to do to clinch the conference championship game was win one of its final two matchups. Considering the Knights were favored by three scores in both with ranked wins over Cincinnati and Tulane in its back pocket, that task sounds simple enough, right? Instead, UCF shockingly stumbled against Navy on senior day in 17-14 fashion, utilizing backup quarterback Mikey Keene in attempt to ignite the offense in the second half after a sluggish first half from the unit.

But last week, starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee returned to the field to start the final edition of the War on I-4 rivalry series against a 1-10 South Florida squad. Things appeared to flow smoothly in the first half when vaulting to a 28-0 lead with a dominant run game... until Plumlee left the game with hamstring issues. Then, everything avalanched from there. South Florida utilized opportune turnovers and quarterback mobility to capture a 39-38 lead, which the Bulls sustained from the middle of the fourth quarter up until the final 20 seconds of the contest, when tight end Alec Holler made a spectacular one-handed, toe-tapping grab on the goal line. Because of Holler’s heroics, UCF escaped South Florida to punch a ticket to face Tulane with a Cotton Bowl bid on the line.

UCF TE Alec Holler made the game-winning one-handed grab to beat South Florida and clinch the AAC Championship Game.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

As suggested by the quarterback situation in their last two games, the Knights’ biggest question heading into Saturday concerns Plumlee’s health. The senior dual threat quarterback was a major part in UCF’s 38-31 win over Tulane in November with 132 passing yards, 176 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns. He is expected to start, and the Knights hope he remains free of any further injury complications in order to lead a rushing offense which ranks sixth nationally in yards per game.

Other contributors to UCF’s high-powered ground attack include the thunder and lightning combo of Isaiah Bowser and RJ Harvey. Bowser is the 6’1”, 225 pound power back who played a vital role in the last outing at Tulane, and he’s typically relied upon out of the wildcat formation in goal line situations. His 13 rushing touchdowns and ability to tire out defenses with significant usage make him one of the Knights’ most valuable offensive players. Harvey has also increased his value this year as UCF’s leading rusher out of the running back room. He averages 6.8 yards per carry and posted 83 yards on 12 attempts in his last meeting with a typically stout Tulane run defense.

The Knights are primarily a run-based offense with plenty of motions and eye candy in the backfield. Jet sweeps are common too, especially with wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe as the recipient. O’Keefe boasts over 200 rushing yards this season, but the speedster is also a lethal downfield threat in UCF’s passing offense. He is one component of the Knights’ receiver trio consisting of SEC transfers Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson — both of whom have become notorious for picking up significant yardage after catches.

Ranked 24th in scoring and ninth in yardage, UCF’s offense, laden with first-year transfers, really came into its own around the midseason. However, the defense took the opposite steps, which is causing the Knights to play more shootout style football as of late. The Knights held each of its first six opponents to 20 points and below. But in the last six games, they yielded an average of 28.3 points per game, but nobody has yet to register 40 on Travis Williams’ defense.

UCF’s defense returns several key absences from the prior matchup with Tulane, however. Outside linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and strong safety Divaad Wilson both missed that outing due to injuries, and the Knights defense hopes to operate at a higher level this time with its third-leading tackler and interceptions leader back in the lineup.

UCF SS Divaad Wilson has been the team’s main takeaway machine with three interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery this season.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The strongest unit on the Knights’ defense resides in the trenches. Defensive end Tre’Mon Morris-Brash and defensive tackle Ricky Barber secured All-AAC honors earlier in the week for their tremendous efforts throughout the season. They rank one and two, respectively, on the roster in sacks and tackles for loss — combining for an aggregate nine quarterback takedowns and 19.5 wrap-ups in the backfield. With Morris-Brash and Barber leading the charge, emerging victorious in this battle of pressure was one of the key elements which allowed UCF to record more defensive stops than the Green Wave last time out in New Orleans.

One specific area UCF’s defense makes it mark is in the red zone. The Knights rank top five in the country in preventing points when their opponents cross the 20-yard line. Only 68 percent of the time UCF surrenders any points, and only 44 percent of the time, an opponent manages a touchdown. Red zone execution will play a major factor on both sides, especially considering the Knights’ unappealing rank of 105th in the FBS in red zone offense. Fortunately for UCF, when offensive execution goes awry near the goal line, the Knights have a solid kicking game with freshman Colton Boomer drilling 14-of-15 attempts this season — a perfect 14-of-14 under 60 yards.

Tulane Green Wave outlook

Yulman Stadium is the host site of the 2022 AAC Championship Game. It’s been a storybook run for Willie Fritz and his Tulane squad, which entered this fall fresh off a 2-10 record from the prior campaign. Many of the key contributors remained the same, but the team is simply executing at a higher level this season. To provide evidence of how far the Green Wave have come, they knocked off two-time reigning conference champion Cincinnati on the road last Friday to snap the Bearcats’ 32-game home winning streak.

Only one AAC team managed to topple the Green Wave all season long, and that was no other than UCF. Now in the same venue against a familiar foe, Tulane strategizes to make round two fare differently than the first meeting.

AAC Offensive Player of the Year Tyjae Spears will play a significant part in determining how electrifying Tulane’s offense is in this rematch. Spears is coming off a season-high 181-yard performance against Cincinnati, and his entire second of half of the season has been this way. The junior rides a six-game streak of 120+ yard rushing games into Saturday, hoping to add to his impressive total of 14 touchdowns. The only team since Oct. 15 to hold Spears out of the end zone was UCF, but the running back still earned 130 rushing yards on eight attempts in the November meeting. Iverson Celestine and Shaadie Clayton-Johnson serve in secondary roles to Spears to diversify the portfolio in Tulane’s 35th ranked ground game.

Tulane v Cincinnati
Tulane RB Tyjae Spears is in the midst of a six-game streak of rushing for 120 yards. Last week was his best showing of 2022 with 181 yards to beat Cincinnati.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Through the air, the Green Wave rely on Michael Pratt, who is approaching the end of his third year as the program’s starter. Pratt took a significant leap from year two to year three, and his improved decision-making was ultra conspicuous. He boasts a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 21-to-4 this season while completing passes at a career-high clip of 64.9 percent. Tulane prefers to keep things grounded offensively, which explains why Pratt didn’t exceed 170 passing yards in the Green Wave’s last four wins, but he still has the ability to take over a game with his arm. Pratt threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns against UCF, and last week in Cincinnati, he captained the game-winning drive with consecutive fourth quarter completions stemming over 30 yards.

Tulane’s receiver distribution is as even as any team’s in the country. There are seven players on this roster which have at least 20 receptions on the board, but not a single one has corralled more than 30. Shae Wyatt, Deuce Watts, and Jha’Quan Jackson are the main trio, each accumulating at least 400 yards on an average of 15+ yards per catch. And as suggested by the trio’s receiving averages, when the Green Wave pass, they prefer to add an element of verticality to the offense and move well past the sticks. When it comes to short-yardage, however, tight end Tyrick James serves as a mismatch for many linebackers and proves to be a viable option with four touchdowns on the year.

As good as Tulane’s 26th ranked scoring offense can be, the calling card of the Green Wave is typically the defense. In Tulane’s two résumé-boosting wins over Kansas State and Cincinnati, defensive stops were the defining factor allowing the team to triumph in difficult road environments. It’s a versatile unit too, as the run defense stopped Kansas State in its tracks while the pass defense prevented Cincinnati from completing explosive plays through the air. Overall, Tulane is one of 18 FBS teams to allow under 20 points per game and the defense ranks 27th nationally in fewest yards surrendered per game.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Kansas State
Tulane OLB Dorian Williams is one of three Green Wave players on the First Team All-AAC defense. Williams has six pass breakups and two forced fumbles in addition to his 105 tackles.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

UCF had its way with Tulane’s run defense last time these teams squared off, so improving that facet of the game is the top priority on championship weekend. There’s no shortage of run stoppers on the roster as linebackers Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams both racked up 100 tackles in the regular season alone. Williams and Anderson are also backfield menaces with a combined 12 tackles for loss, and backfield penetration is exactly what Tulane needs to make this matchup go differently. The Green Wave didn’t register a single sack on UCF last go around, so Williams and defensive end Darius Hodges will be called upon to spark the pass rush against a Knights’ line with three All-AAC selections.

Tulane’s 13th ranked defense features plenty of talent on the back end, especially in the safety room. Larry Brooks and Macon Clark are present on an overwhelming amount of plays, totaling 74 and 56 tackles, Clark is a frequent invader of backfields from the free safety spot with seven tackles for loss on the season, while Brooks is a force in coverage at strong safety with a pair of interceptions. UCF is the only team to crack more than 31 points on the Green Wave this year, so a stronger showing from this unit is the line between a coveted New Year’s Six bowl bid and a different destination this postseason.


Homefield advantage in the AAC title game matters. In the game’s seven-year history, six conference champions held hosting duties. The only exception was 2016 Navy, which fell to Temple in 2016 — the only year since the AAC Championship’s inception where the winner did not receive a New Year’s Six bid.

Tulane is the host, and although that did not go well last time it faced UCF, this is a different matchup. The Green Wave should deliver a better performance containing the run this time around, as UCF’s explosive first half is difficult to replicate. Additionally, the Knights’ defense hasn’t been as strong through the second half of this season, so if Tyjae Spears continues his rampage, he may be difficult for the Knights to stop.

This has the makings of a close finish between two stellar rushing attacks, but in the end, Tulane utilizes its defensive advantages to generate one extra stop and punch its first New Year’s Six bid of the College Football Playoff era.

Prediction: Tulane 31, UCF 27