- Time and date: Saturday, November 25 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: FS1
- Location: FBC Mortgage Stadium — Orlando, FL
- Spread: UCF (-13.5)
- Over/under: 61.5
- All-time series: UCF leads, 7-3
- Last meeting: UCF 44, Houston 21 — October 31, 2022
- Current streak: UCF, 2 (2019-20)
Setting the scene
It’s rivalry week in college football.
While Houston vs. UCF is not necessarily a rivalry, both programs share plenty in common. They were founding members of the AAC in 2013, simultaneously transitioning into the league from Conference USA. Now, both the Cougars (4-7, 2-6 Big 12) and Knights (5-6, 2-6 Big 12) are in their inaugural year of Big 12 play, sporting similar overall and conference records.
Additionally, there’s the space connection. UCF is college football’s “Space U,” hosting an annual “Space Game” where they wear space-themed uniforms to celebrate the university’s roots — founded in 1963 to assist the rising US space program. Meanwhile, Houston is labeled “Space City” as the home to the Johnson Space Center and NASA’s mission control center.
Which Big 12 newcomer successfully launches to a victory in Orlando for Saturday’s regular season finale?
Houston Cougars outlook
This is Houston’s final game of 2023. The Cougars lost their chance at bowl eligibility last week, dropping their home finale 43-30 to Oklahoma State. It’s the first time since 2019 Houston’s season will end prematurely, so Saturday marks the last gameday for many important seniors to the program, ranging from defensive end Nelson Ceaser to left tackle Patrick Paul.
Last week’s Oklahoma State game fared in an unusual manner for Houston. Typically the Cougars start slow but find ways to erase deficits. Prior to last Saturday, they were outscored 94-41 in first quarters, but they handled Oklahoma State 14-3 in the opening frame and led 23-9 roughly two minutes before halftime. But one costly interception before the break swung the game in the Cowboys’ favor, and Oklahoma State posted 27 unanswered points to usurp control from the Cougars.
Houston competes at home against the Big 12’s best, but road matchups haven’t been the kindest to Houston this year. The Cougars are 1-3 away from home with an aggregate point differential of -63. Thus, launching to a fast start is even more essential, especially against a UCF team which won its last three first quarters 35-3.
Houston’s offense is highly predicated on the success of the passing attack. Quarterback Donovan Smith wraps up his first season with the program Saturday, and his performance magnificently dictates how Houston performs as a whole. Three of Houston’s four wins this year were games where Smith avoided an interception, but turnovers have become a major issue for the passing game lately. The Cougars threw seven interceptions in the past three weeks and tossed at least one in their last five games. It’s taken a toll on the scoring effort, as the offense only averaged 18.6 points per game across that 5-game stretch.
When Smith is on point, he’s dominant. The 6’5”, 241 pound quarterback showcased this supreme talent against Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Texas — eclipsing 330 passing yards twice and totaling four touchdowns twice in that 3-game span. Head coach Dana Holgorsen also increased Smith’s utilization in the run game lately, and the last three weeks were his three highest rushing outputs this season at 66, 88, and 63 yards.
Outside of Smith, Houston’s run game is primarily captained by true freshman Parker Jenkins. The running back is enjoying a solid debut season, averaging at least 4.7 yards per carry in each of his last four outings, but Houston doesn’t hand the ball off too often. The last three weeks, running backs combined for 15 carries against Oklahoma State, 10 against Cincinnati, and 12 against Baylor. However, the Cougars could ramp up their usage this week given UCF’s typical run defense numbers.
But if Houston sticks with its offensive MO in Orlando, Sam Brown and Joseph Manjack IV will take the liberties of moving the offense downfield. Brown is third in the Big 12 with 815 receiving yards while Manjack has totaled five touchdowns in his last five games. The Cougars will operate without Matthew Golden who underwent season-ending foot surgery so other options such as Dalton Carnes and true freshman Jonah Wilson should see an uptick in receiving production.
On defense, it’s the final collegiate game of defensive end Nelson Ceaser. Ceaser leads the Big 12 in sacks with 9.5 on the year, in addition to tallying 13 tackles for loss and 42 total takedowns. Another notable defensive senior on the way out for Houston is outside linebacker Malik Robinson, and he’ll be tasked with slowing down UCF’s high-powered run game. Robinson has 74 tackles on the season and enjoyed some success in limiting the nation’s leading rusher Ollie Gordon last week, totaling seven tackles and forcing a safety in the defeat.
Houston’s defense accumulated just two interceptions across the last five games, and the Cougars need to force UCF into some errant throws Saturday to reverse this fortune. Seven of Houston’s nine interceptions in 2023 landed in the hands of boundary cornerbacks Malik Fleming and Isaiah Hamilton, and these cornerbacks must play a hand in the turnover battle in addition to stifling UCF’s talented receiver duo. The Cougars’ pass defense ranks 116th in the FBS, so any takeaway to get the unit off the field could go a long way.
UCF Knights outlook
Bowl eligibility is at stake for UCF and UCF only in this matchup. Qualifying for the postseason is typically an afterthought in Orlando as the Knights have attained this feat in seven consecutive seasons and 10 of the last 11.
UCF was granted the opportunity to attain the feat last week, but the team squandered a 14-0 lead at Texas Tech and lost due to a shocking missed extra point on the tying touchdown. Now, the Knights return home where they posted their best performance of 2023 two weeks ago, shellacking potential Big 12 Championship Game participant Oklahoma State in lopsided 45-3 fashion.
That game proved the potential of Gus Malzahn’s team when everything falls in its favor. UCF ran wild over Oklahoma State’s defense that game, attaining 293 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. The rushing attack is fourth nationally in yards per game and is spearheaded by RJ Harvey, the nation’s 10th leading rusher. Prior to his 78-yard performance at Texas Tech, Harvey reached the century mark in five consecutive games, including his 206-yard outburst against Oklahoma State. Supporting Harvey at running back is the speedy Johnny Richardson who is no stranger to explosive plays at 6.7 yards per carry. Also, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee plays a massive role in racking up yards on the ground in this RPO-based offense.
Plumlee missed a chunk of the season with a leg injury suffered in Week 2, and even upon returning, it was clear he wasn’t up to full speed. But the quarterback who celebrates senior day Saturday showed tremendous improvement the last several weeks, posting 84 yards on the Red Raiders — his highest rushing total in his six games since the injury.
The passing attack doesn’t show the same consistency as the run game for UCF, but success in that facet is the key to taking out an opponent to the degree it did Oklahoma State. Plumlee attained a season-high 299 passing yards and three touchdowns without an interception against the Cowboys, and the Knights need to remain turnover-free as picks proved super costly in losses to West Virginia and Texas Tech. They’ll definitely take risks downfield, equipped with arguably the Big 12’s best receiving duo in Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson. Baker leads the conference in receiving yards at 907, averaging 22.1 yards per catch, while Hudson ranks fourth, boasting somehow even a higher average at 22.9.
UCF has a negative turnover differential on the year and its only two Big 12 victories transpired when winning the turnover battle by at least two. Assertively dominating the turnover battle early was how the Oklahoma State game got out of hand and the Knights need to generate these in the first half to deliver a similar blow to Houston. Otherwise, collecting stops doesn’t always come easy for the Knights. They rank 126th nationally in run defense, allowing over 195 yards per game on 5.0 yards per carry. The passing defense is more adept at 41st in the FBS in yards surrendered, and the Knights limit teams to a subpar completion percentage of 57.2.
It’s senior day in Orlando and one key member of the defense playing his final game at the Bounce House is defensive end Tre’Mon Morris-Brash. Morris-Brash has been a star at UCF for quite some time, but this season he’s producing the best numbers of his career with 17.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The team’s leading tackler Jason Johnson is another senior to be honored in the pregame ceremonies, and the inside linebacker is expected to play a massive role in containing Donovan Smith as a runner. Some of the younger faces to watch on this defense include sophomore safeties Nikai Martinez and Demari Henderson. The two combine for five interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries as some of the main sources of havoc on the unit.
Bowl eligibility is at stake for UCF while Houston is eliminated from postseason contention, but that doesn't meant the Cougars aren’t playing for anything. There are many seniors suiting up for the final time in red and white, looking to end their collegiate careers on a high note. Without the opportunity to go bowling, Houston should treat this finale as its 2023 bowl. The Cougars hung with Texas and Oklahoma State — the likely Big 12 Championship Game participants — and this matchup against UCF can also be competitive if the turnover battle remains relatively even.
UCF is playing some of its best football at the moment. John Rhys Plumlee is as healthy as he’s been since Week 2, and the Knights are beyond loaded with speed at the skill positions. RJ Harvey and Plumlee should set the tone for the offense on the ground, and once Houston sells out to stop the talented duo, expect some deep shots to Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson. UCF emerges victorious on senior day and their reward is their seventh-straight bowl game, becoming the first Big 12 newcomer to attain that feat.
Prediction: UCF 31, Houston 24