UCF's Playoff Dreams Are on the Line Against Memphis

No. 10 UCF has coasted through a weak schedule to continue its winning streak. Can Heisman candidate Darrell Henderson and Memphis defend their home field and end any talk of the Knights making the playoff?
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Ten months after missing out on the College Football Playoff despite an undefeated record and nine months after declaring itself national champions, UCF is once again raising questions about its merit for a potential historic berth in the CFP. No Group of Five team has made the playoff in its four-year history, but would the selection committee really be able to justify keeping the Knights out after a second straight unblemished season? UCF has cruised to 5–0 and has moved up in the AP Poll every week, from No. 21 in the preseason rankings to No. 10 ahead of Week 7. To keep the debate raging, UCF has to survive its first real challenge, a road date against a talented Memphis team that has revenge on its mind.

If things had gone differently during Memphis’s two trips to Orlando last season, it could’ve been the Tigers who were giving the committee something to think about in early December. Memphis was 3–0 with a non-conference win over then-No. 25 UCLA when it gave up 34 unanswered points to UCF in a blowout loss Week 4 last year. The Tigers’ high-powered offense bounced back and led them to seven straight wins to end the regular season, setting up another road game against UCF for the AAC championship. The rematch was a much different game, albeit with the same result; the Knights outlasted Memphis 62–55 in a double-overtime thriller.

Sitting at 4–2 after upset losses to Navy and Tulane, Memphis doesn’t have the big dreams UCF does heading into this Saturday’s matchup, but it has something almost as good: the chance to squash those dreams. A Tigers win would not just knock UCF out of playoff contention, but would also end its 11-game win streak in this series and keep Memphis afloat in the AAC West. Working in Memphis’s favor is that it gets to play at home, where it hasn’t lost a regular-season game since November 2016. Still, it will take the Tigers’ best performance of the year to beat a juggernaut UCF team that hasn’t lost, period, since the calendar flipped to 2017.

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UCF hasn’t missed a beat since Scott Frost left for Nebraska in the offseason, though this will be the first test for new head coach Josh Heupel. The Knights have handled business against one of the worst early-season schedules in the nation, averaging more than 48 points per game and allowing fewer than 18 so far. Junior quarterback McKenzie Milton has thrown for 1,500 yards with 20 total touchdowns and is playing like a Heisman contender despite losing last year’s leading receiver, Tre’Quan Smith, to the NFL. Milton has no shortage of weapons around him, with a trio of talented receivers led by sophomore Gabriel Davis and five running backs with at least 20 carries, led by junior Adrian Killins Jr.

The Knights haven’t played anyone like Memphis, which can score in bunches just as easily as UCF. The Tigers’ attack is powered by a Heisman candidate of their own in Darrell Henderson, the nation’s leading rusher. Henderson has surpassed 170 rushing yards in four of six games and has scored 14 total touchdowns. At 5’ 9”, 200 pounds, he possesses a potent combination of breakaway speed and tackle-breaking power that he utilizes both between the tackles and as a receiver out of the backfield. His 1,112 yards from scrimmage have come on just 88 touches; Henderson is tied for 62nd in the country in carries but has at least one play of 47 or more yards in every game. Losing quarterback Riley Ferguson this offseason was a concern for Memphis, but coach Mike Norvell may have somehow found an upgrade in Arizona State transfer Brady White. White has tossed 15 touchdowns to just one interception, and his passer rating of 183.1 is seventh in the country. Leading receiver Damonte Coxie has caught four of those touchdowns, and don’t forget about backup running back Patrick Taylor Jr., who is a big play threat in his own right.

The winner of this projected shootout between the nation’s 6th and 11th-highest scoring offenses will come down to which defense makes more plays. That’s where UCF figures to have an advantage. The Knights are 32nd in defensive S&P+ while Memphis is 83rd. Memphis gave up 35 points to one-win South Alabama and 40 in a loss to Tulane, neither of which has anything resembling the offense it will see on Saturday. Memphis is particularly poor at stopping offenses once they’re inside the Tigers’ 40, allowing an average of 5.26 points on those opportunities. UCF’s offense happens to be the best in the country at finishing drives once it's past the 40 (6.21 points/opp).

UCF lost defensive standouts Shaquem Griffin and Mike Hughes, but talent remains. Sophomore safety Richie Grant is a playmaker who leads the Knights in tackles (41) and interceptions (three), and linebacker Pat Jasinski and defensive end Titus Davis are standouts in the front seven. For Memphis, outside linebacker Bryce Huff (five sacks, six TFLs) is a player to watch.

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If UCF can go on the road and win its 12th straight against Memphis and 19th straight overall, it can start to look ahead to the last few weeks of the season. The Knights’ next three games shouldn’t be challenging, but their undefeated record would be put to the test three straight times to end the year in games against Cincinnati, South Florida and the AAC West champion, likely Houston in this scenario. The top of the American has looked pretty strong in 2018, which presents UCF with several opportunities to pick up quality wins. Cincinnati (No. 25) and USF (No. 23) are currently ranked, and Houston might be better than both. If UCF runs the table, its résumé may well look better than it did last year. Would a 25-game win streak be enough for the committee?

If Memphis defends its home field this weekend, we’ll never know the answer to that question.