When Memphis and UCF met the first time this season six weeks ago, the Tigers raced out to a 30–14 lead behind a punishing running game and looked to threaten the nation’s longest winning streak.
But the Knights stormed back to win, scoring 17 unanswered behind McKenzie Milton’s 296 passing yards and a stifling defensive effort that held Memphis scoreless in the second half.
On Saturday in the AAC championship game, faced with almost the same scenario but with a backup quarterback, UCF again fought back from a big halftime deficit and beat Memphis 56–41 to win its 25th straight game and clinch another berth in a New Year’s Six bowl.
The Knights were without Milton after the junior quarterback sustained a gruesome, season-ending knee injury in last week's win over USF, but their offense didn't skip a beat playing under the direction of redshirt freshman QB Darriel Mack Jr. The 56-point outing kept alive an equally-long UCF streak of games with 30 or more points, the longest streak by a major college football team since the advent of the AP poll in 1936.
Mack accounted for six touchdowns on the day, completing 19 of 27 passes for 348 yards and two scores and adding four on the ground. The final one, from five yards out with less than three minutes to go, put the game out of reach.
For the game's first 30 minutes it seemed like a comeback was unlikely this time, with Memphis running UCF out of its own stadium. The Knights’ problems in the first half were two-fold: an inability to stop the run and committing uncharacteristic turnovers.
On the fourth play of the game, Memphis running back Darrell Henderson, the nation's second leading rusher, raced for a 62-yard score. A fumble by Mack led to Henderson’s second touchdown, a 12-yarder that put UCF in a quick two-score hole.
The turnovers and porous run defense continued. Patrick Taylor got in on the act, running 70-yard for a touchdown, and Henderson hit the trifecta on an 82-yard TD run to make the score 31–14. Henderson even threw a four-yard touchdown pass just before halftime that made the score 38–21.
Memphis ran for 336 yards in the first half, the most by any team in any half this season. But Tigers stalled in the second half to finish with 401 yards rushing, and Henderson, who had 210 yards overall, gained only seven in the last 30 minutes.
UCF's offense also came out roaring in the second half, scoring on each of its five possessions and taking its first lead of the game on a two-yard touchdown run by Mack that made it 42–41. Mack’s backfield mate, Greg McCrae, ran for a season-high 206 yards and a touchdown.
Ranked No. 8 by the College Football Playoff committee entering this weekend, the Knights' 12–0 season won't end with the playoff bid that they hoped for, but they will earn another New Year's Six bowl bid with a trip to either the Fiesta or the Peach. Last season, UCF defeated Auburn 34–27 in the Peach Bowl to cap off a perfect 13–0 season and promptly declared itself national champions. It will now have a chance have the first back-to-back undefeated seasons in college football since Miami in 2001–02.