UCF is playing with the hopes of everyone in the Group of Five on its back. The Knights will try and represent all of the smaller schools in this Game, something that Houston did two years ago in beating Florida State in the Peach Bowl as a 7.5-point underdog. For this one, Auburn was as big as a -10 point favorite as of mid-December at 5Dimes Sportsbook.
The Tigers were headed for the Playoff, but couldn’t get past Georgia for the second time in a month in the SEC title Game. Auburn had those impressive wins, but this is still a team that had trouble getting past Mercer and lost a lead against LSU. The Georgia and Alabama wins came at home, leading some to believe that this team isn’t nearly as good away from that environment.
And while UCF is good, the same could be said for them after winning by seven at SMU and escaping against both USF and Memphis in the final two Games. The Knights are undefeated, but had numerous scares throughout the season. The big news for UCF backers is that head coach SCott Frost will remain the head coach for the bowl to send his players out on a high before he goes to Nebraska. The Knights will be plenty pumped and running back Adrian Killins already said Auburn will be in for a “rude awakening,” but will any of that matter?
UCF hasn’t seen a team like this all season with its toughest Game out of Conference coming against Maryland and the rest of them coming against defense-lacking AAC teams. The Knights lead the country with 49.4 points per Game, but haven’t faced this caliber of defense. Auburn maybe isn’t as dominant as some, but its defensive front already controlled the lines of Georgia and Alabama in previous Games. That’ll be the first issue for UCF if it wants to keep McKenzie Milton clean. The Tigers allowed just 3.5 yards per carry and that’ll likely be a problem for Killins and company.
The Knights averaged 5.2 yards per carry and had little resistance against most opponents it faced this season, and if the ground Game doesn’t work, it’ll be new territory. That could lead to Milton having to do everything himself with top wide outs Tre’Quan Smith and Dredrick Snelson. Milton had a great season with 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing close to 70 percent of his passes, but this defense will be an entirely new test. The last time UCF played a defense at this level was early last year in a 51-14 loss to Michigan. Of course, that was a long time ago and UCF is miles better than the 2016 team.
The other side of the field could also be troublesome with UCF allowing 4.4 yards per carry and 429 yards per Game. Some of those numbers imploded after allowing 97 points in the last two Games, but this defense stepped up numerous times this season. Still, Auburn has run through most defenses it’s faced in the SEC and Kerryon Johnson should be healthy again after missing some of the SEC title Game.
Johnson is the guy to worry about, who had 1,320 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground this season. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham can’t be ignored either because he was one of the main reasons this team turned things around this season with 17 touchdowns and only Four picks. He’ll look often to his favorite target Ryan Davis, who had 76 receptions, by far the most on the team.
If UCF wants to get into another shootout, that may not be the best path to victory. The Tigers will likely be able to run all Game, while the Knights will have a harder time moving consistently on this defense. There’s a reason this spread is so much, but motivation can’t be overlooked for UCF in this spot.
The Knights are 2-5 ATS in their last seven against the SEC and 1-3-1 ATS vs. a team with a winning record. The Tigers are 1-4 ATS in their last five on a neutral site with their last six non-Conference Games hitting the under.
Our Pick – Auburn -9.5