The War on I-4 is over, and with UCF not being in contention for the AAC title, that means it’s time to look ahead to bowl season for the Knights.
There are a few potential matchups for UCF that would mean more than others. Let’s break down some of the most exciting possible games.
A matchup with the Gators is at the top of UCF’s Christmas list for bowl season, and it is not particularly close. UCF players, coaches, and fans alike have claimed multiple times over the past few years that they are the best team in Florida. A meeting in the Birmingham Bowl or Gasparilla Bowl with the Gators would give them the chance to prove just that.
Although these two teams recently agreed to a three-game series a few years down the road, UCF wants their crack at Florida as soon as possible, considering that series does not get underway until 2024.
The Gators performed well below expectations this season. After 3 consecutive New Year’s Six Bowl appearances, they won a measly 6 games in 2021, needing to gut out a win last week vs Florida State to even become bowl eligible. On top of all this, head coach Dan Mullen was recently fired. In short, the Gators are at a low point, and they’re very vulnerable.
The Gators really struggled defensively this season. Most notably they gave up 52 points to FCS Samford, 49 to an underwhelming LSU squad, which tied LSU’s highest point total of the season, and 40 to South Carolina, who only managed to score 40 in one other game against Eastern Illinois. Firing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham didn’t help, either. The first game following his firing was the defensive fiasco vs Samford.
The Gator offense was consistently inconsistent. Quarterback Anthony Richardson did not play as well as the Gators had hoped, and Emory Jones did not do anything too special himself, either. In SEC play, the Gators actually managed to average a tad over 26 points per game. The inconsistency showed in a handful of those games, though, as they had conference games in which they were held to 7, 17, 13, and 23 (in overtime). In their only game featuring a common opponent with UCF, vs the South Florida Bulls, the Gators put up 42 points compared to UCF’s 17 points vs South Florida. UCF’s defense, better across the board than South Florida’s, could potentially keep the Gator offense in check better than the Bulls did if they play to their strengths.
If there were any year that UCF could make a statement against Florida, this would be the year. It would also, in the eyes of many UCF fans, make Gus Malzahn’s first season at the helm a success considering everything he and his team (injuries in particular) dealt with this season.
Surprise, surprise, another member of Florida’s “Big 3” teams, the Miami Hurricanes, are an opponent that UCF would love to get a shot at in a bowl game. The reasons for that are similar to the reasons that Florida is on this list.
It is almost just as appealing of a matchup. The Fenway Bowl, Gasparilla Bowl, and Birmingham Bowl are all possibilities for both UCF and Miami.
Miami had high hopes riding into the season, ranked 14th going into week one. They were subsequently throttled by Alabama in their season opener, 44-13, and never saw the top 25 again for the rest of the season.
The Hurricanes did pick up two marquee wins versus ranked opponents against Pittsburgh and North Carolina State, but they lost too many key games to keep themselves nationally relevant. It’s the same story we’ve heard about Miami year after year for a while now. There are rumblings of head coach Manny Diaz possibly being fired soon, but that decision will ultimately be left up to whoever the university hires as it’s athletic director.
Miami expected to have D’Eriq King playing quarterback for them all season, but injuries piled up for him, leaving the job open for redshirt freshman Tyler Van Dyke. Van Dyke managed to play pretty well, in fact he finished 12th in the FBS in QBR during the regular season, and 3rd in that category among all freshmen. He threw for over 300 yards in each of Miami’s last 6 games, and threw just three interceptions in that span. Miami’s offense as a whole benefited greatly from his play, they scored 34.1 points per game on the year, good for 26th in the FBS.
Defense is what has killed the Hurricanes in 2021. They gave up more than 25 points in nine of their eleven games vs FBS opponents, and gave up 30 or more points seven times. They did an okay job stopping the run, but were 102nd in the country in passing yards allowed per game. That’s not going to cut it no matter how prolific the offense is.
Miami also could not lay off the penalties. They gifted 63 yards per game to their opponents by way of penalty. Penalties are never ideal, but it becomes even more of a problem when they happen at the most inopportune times. It seemed like Miami had so many good offensive drives ruined by one or two penalties, and the same thing happened on the defensive side of the ball. The lack of discipline was a real game-changer, and cost them a few wins.
A win in a game like this would wrap a nice bow on a 2021 season filled with ups and downs, and would give the team a nice boost of confidence heading into 2022 and beyond.
Based on the geography and the way bowl invites are sent out, don’t get your hopes up too high about the Knights facing Tennessee this bowl season. However, it can definitely happen.
UCF was left with a sour taste in their mouth back in January when their former head coach Josh Heupel and former athletic director Danny White abruptly left UCF and accepted jobs with Tennessee. It was something that blindsided a bunch of fans and players. A meeting in the Birmingham Bowl between Coach Malzahn’s Knights and Coach Heupel’s Vols would likely be a game played with a ton of emotion. One should be willing to bet some of the players Coach Heupel recruited to UCF would love the chance to get to knock off their former head coach.
Coach Heupel has been known as an offensive mastermind for years now. UCF hired him back in 2018 thanks to his impressive job as offensive coordinator with the Missouri Tigers, making them one of the top offenses in the SEC with minimal talent compared to the rest of the conference. In 2020, he led UCF to the second highest scoring offense in the country. After landing his new job at Tennessee, it’s been more of the same.
Tennessee’s offense jumped from being one of the bottom 20 offenses in the FBS in 2020, to being the 9th highest scoring team in the FBS in 2021. Senior quarterback Hendon Hooker took a massive leap forward this season.
He threw for over 2,500 yards, threw 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions all season. Not too shabby for a guy facing SEC defenses every week. The fast-paced offense Tennessee runs is something SEC defenses don’t see very often, and the Volunteers were able to take advantage of that. The Heupel Effect is real—at least on the offensive side of things.
All but one of Tennessee’s losses came to teams that finished the season ranked. They did a good job of beating the teams they should be beating, and by a pretty good margin. Every one of their wins outside of the Kentucky game had a margin of victory of at least 24 points. It would be really tough for UCF to slow down an offense like this, as Tennessee’s offense is a similar caliber to that of Cincinnati. In order to pull out a win in a game like this, UCF would likely need to play mistake-free football offensively in order to keep the game within striking distance.
This game would have a lot of meaning to it for both sides, and would probably draw the attention of college football lovers.
There are a few other teams UCF could face in a bowl game that have the potential to be interesting games. To be truly honest, as long as UCF doesn’t face a Group of 5 school, Knights fans will not be too disappointed. With that being said, here are a few honorable mentions of realistic, interesting bowl game opponents:
**Mississippi State Bulldogs
**Virginia Tech Hokies
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