The 2021 tilt between UCF and Louisville was incredibly competitive. Both teams traded touchdowns all game, and neither squad held more than a seven point lead at any point. UCF had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds, but their hopes were dashed by the freshman linebacker Jaylin Alderman, who picked off a Dillon Gabriel pass that bounced off the hands of Amari Johnson, and took it 66 yards for a touchdown with just a few ticks remaining.
Louisville finished the year with a 6-7 record, but this year looks to improve upon that. ESPN’s FPI has them ranked 36th in the nation — three spots behind UCF at no. 33 — heading into next year.
The Knights will have another shot at the Cardinals in 2022, this time in Orlando. Things will be a little different this time around, as Dillon Gabriel has moved on from UCF, along with multiple other key contributors, and Louisville has had some roster turnover of their own. Here is what can be expected from this matchup:
Malik Cunningham’s Speed
The Louisville offense was in the top 40 in the country last season, and a lot of that can be attributed to the play of quarterback Malik Cunningham. His passing skills are well-rounded, as he has a strong arm, is very accurate on short-to-medium passes, and has an ability to make some tough throws on the run while the defense is worried about his speed and runnnig ability. Overall, he threw for 2,941 yards and 19 touchdowns to only six interceptions. He also produced a 62% completion percentage.
While those are some solid passing numbers, Cunningham just absolutely shredded defenses with his legs in 2021. He ranked first in the country in rushing touchdowns (20), rushing yards (1,031), and yards per carry (5.96) among all quarterbacks; nobody else was particularly close in any of those categories. Game plans geared toward stopping him are generally futile, as most of the time he is one of if not the fastest player on the field.
In the past, UCF has struggled containing mobile quarterbacks, and last year Cunningham exposed that weakness, going for 99 rushing yards and two touchdowns from just 13 carries. That was his fourth-highest rushing yard total in a game last season. If the Knights want a chance to knock off Louisville, they will have to find a way to, at the very least, slow Cunningham down a little bit.
Louisville, similarly to UCF, had a solid off season when it comes to the Transfer Portal. 247 Sports has them ranked as having the 16th best incoming transfer class in the FBS. Offensively, they added some weapons for Malik Cunningham to get the football in their hands. The Cardinals brought in one of the top running backs from the Transfer Portal from Tennessee, Tiyon Evans, as well as highly-touted receiver Tyler Hudson out of Central Arkansas.
Evans will complement fellow Cardinal running back Jalen Mitchell well. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry in 2021 on 81 carries while facing SEC-level competition, and ran for a career-high 156 yards vs Missouri. It is reasonable to say he could give UCF some fits as the game moves along.
Hudson is a versatile wide receiver who led Central Arkansas in receiving yards in 2020 (he sat out the 2021 season). He also returned punts, and may take over some punt return duties as multiple different Cardinals were returning punts last season.
Defensively, the most notable addition is Jarvis Brownlee Jr, a cornerback transfer from Florida State. Brownlee was a key contributor to the Florida State secondary in 2021. He had two interceptions and three pass breakups, and was second on the team’s secondary in tackles, notching 51 on the year. Louisville also picked up Quincy Riley out of Middle Tennessee, who ranked 4th in the country in total interceptions last season.
UCF Scheduling Advantage
UCF will have a few distinct advantages heading into this game. Firstly, UCF will be well rested as there are eight days between their home opener and this game, while Louisville will have a short week, and only six days rest.
The Knights also will be at home for the second straight game to start the year, while Louisville will be on its second straight road game. This provides even more of a rest advantage as UCF will not have to deal with the wear and tear that travel can bring to a team.
To add even more of a rest advantage, the Knights will be coming off of a game vs FCS South Carolina State. If everything goes right for UCF in that game, the starters will not see the field in the second half. Meanwhile, Louisville will have just played against conference foe Syracuse, a game which has the potential to be a grind-it-out type of matchup, and it’s unlikely the Louisville starters will get much rest in that one.
If the Knights want to even up the all-time series with the Cardinals at two apiece, they will need to contain the explosive offense that Louisville will likely have in 2022. It will be a big boost for them if they’re able to win, as Louisville is easily the toughest non-conference game on the docket, and would be a decent addition to the strength of schedule resume.