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The Big USF vs. UCF Preview

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These two teams have very obvious strengths, but the key to winning the War on I-4 lies in the matchup of their weaknesses.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Over the summer, Collin and I did a podcast where we disagreed over how much UCF football would rebound this year. He insisted that the Knights would continue to suck. I thought they might bounce back because I thought their 0-12 season wasn’t indicative of their talent level. I mean, they couldn’t have completely imploded from their 9-4 season in 2014. They weren’t really that bad. Sure enough, UCF is bowl eligible in Scott Frost’s first season in charge. They’ll probably stay in Orlando and play in the Cure Bowl and smash up some jank Sun Belt team. For them, this season has to be considered a success.

(Did I bring this up just to kick Collin in the nuts and make myself look smart? Maybe.)

UCF still has a ways to go in Frost’s rebuild, but they have some pieces to work with on offense, and out of nowhere they’ve built a good defense, maybe the best in the league outside of Temple. That defense may be what gives them a chance to win this game.

Let’s dig into the numbers.

Peripherals

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. UCF D) S&P+ (UCF O vs. USF D) S&P+ (ST)
USF 39 2 104 37
UCF 63 23 117 16

UCF’s offense is almost as terrible as USF’s offense is amazing. Meanwhile, the Knights’ defense is good overall, while their pass defense is fantastic.

UCF’s special teams edge is mostly due to punter Caleb Houston, who’s having a pretty good year, and 155-pound speedster Adrian Killins, who’s returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Place kicking between the two teams is a wash, especially if Emilio Nadelman is ready to return this week.

When UCF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
UCF Offense 118 124 60
USF Defense 98 96 34

OK everyone, say it with me. Now if THIS team can run on USF, then we have some REAL problems defensively. Actually, after last week I have a little more confidence in USF’s run defense. They held SMU to a little over three yards a carry, and when they really needed stops they got them. Despite Frost’s offense being based on running the ball, UCF hasn’t found a consistent runner all season. They only managed 88 yards rushing last week against Tulsa.

It gets even worse when you dig further into the advanced stats. The Knights are 126th in Adjusted Line Yards (how much of the running game’s success stems from the offensive line) and their Stuff Rate (how many carries are for 0 yards or less) is next to last at 127th.

When UCF Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
UCF Offense 96 109 117
USF Defense 70 88 44

True freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton was a shot in the arm for the Knights when he took over for the injured Justin Holman, who wasn’t a fit at all in Frost’s offense. When Holman recovered, Frost stuck with Milton, but results have been diminishing in the last few weeks. Based on the low yards per attempt (only 5.2), the very low Pass Explosiveness, and the fact that Milton has only thrown five interceptions on 255 attempts, it looks like the Knights are simply trying to avoid mistakes in the passing game. On that count, UCF has succeeded.

Side note - Tre’Quan Smith had about five ridiculous catches against USF last year. He was pretty much the only Knight who looked like he cared about winning that game. He is UCF’s most productive receiver by far. Keep an eye on him.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 8 37 2
UCF Defense 89 54 70

Although the Knights have a good defense, they aren’t that good at stopping the run. Tulsa hit them for 348 yards last week, averaging over six yards per carry. The light’s going to be pretty green for Quinton Flowers, Marlon Mack, and company to do their thing this week. What could slow them down, though, is if UCF took some lessons from SMU’s aggressiveness on the edges... or if USF has as much trouble blocking their defensive front as they did with the Mustangs.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 31 36 5
UCF Defense 19 6 71

I’m interested to see how this matchup goes. The Knights have done well closing down wide-open passing games. USF doesn’t have that kind of passing game, but UCF kept the Bulls under wraps last season when they tried to go down the field. If USF can reclaim the screen game that went missing against SMU, they should stop the Knights from stacking up the box in an attempt to stop the run.

Like USF, the Knights’ defensive line doesn’t get much done. But look out for linebackers Shaquem Griffin (11 sacks, 17.5 TFL) and Errol Clarke (6.5 sacks, 10 TFL) on blitzes.

Summary and Prediction

I hope you don’t expect USF to obliterate the Knights like they did in Orlando last year. UCF’s defense, which was simply abysmal last year, is too good for that to happen now. While the Bulls will certainly get theirs, they may not get as much as you’re used to seeing.

The real battle is between the weak links of these two teams. Can USF’s very bad defense stop UCF’s very bad offense? I think USF can do it because the Knights’ offensive line is a real problem. It hasn’t manifested itself in the passing game because Milton is elusive enough to avoid trouble, but the running game’s problems clearly start up front. The Bulls also have a little bit to build on after last week’s relatively good performance. On the other hand, UCF hasn’t had a good game offensively since mid-October and their defense was gashed last week. Now they have to face the second-ranked offense in the country. Good luck with that.

USF 38, UCF 21