One of the biggest gripes during the College Football Playoff discussion has been that Group of Five teams never have a shot to truly be in the mix. They basically have to settle for one-off games like the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, which will feature the undefeated UCF Knights against the SEC runner-up Auburn Tigers in Atlanta, Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. These two high-octane offenses should enjoy the fast track, but we only have a total of 66.5, which may seem low to a lot of people. The spread of Auburn -9.5 may also catch some by surprise.
UCF rolled to a 12-0 record, but the Knights were not the same dominant team late in the season that they were early on. UCF needed double overtime to survive Memphis in the AAC Title Game, got outgained in a 49-42 win over South Florida, and really had issues on the road at SMU. The quest for perfection will continue to feature Scott Frost, who has already been hired by Nebraska, but has been given the chance by AD Bill Moos to finish out his season with the Knights. Auburn is 10-3 and is in something of a no-win scenario. The Tigers are supposed to win this game and overcome the disappointment of missing out on the College Football Playoff with the SEC Championship Game loss to Georgia. The team Auburn beat the week prior, the Alabama Crimson Tide, is in the playoff. How invested will the Tigers be to play an upstart Group of Five team? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.
When Scott Frost was at Oregon, a small quarterback named McKenzie Milton attended a QB camp. It was deemed that Milton was too small to offer. But, when Scott Frost took the job at UCF, he knew exactly what he wanted. Milton has not disappointed. The sophomore sensation posted a 35/9 TD/INT ratio and completed 69.2 percent of his passes en route to the Peach Bowl. Milton also ran 93 times for 497 yards with seven rushing scores. New head coach Josh Heupel has a lot to work with in Milton and we’ll have to see how his skill set translates. Adrian Killins Jr. was the leading rusher with 762 yards on 112 carries for a 6.8 ypc average and 10 scores, but UCF had a committee approach for the most part and rushed for 5.2 yards per play. Tre’Quan Smith opened a ton of eyes in his junior season with 1,082 yards on just 54 receptions. Thirteen of those grabs went for six. UCF had 15 yards per reception this season and was among the country’s best with 7.6 yards per play. This is a very hard offense to stop with the UCFast tempo. We’ll see what cutesy name that tempo gets in Lincoln.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander was in a bit of a tough spot coming into the season. UCF’s defense, which allowed 37.7 points and 464 yards per game in 2015, took major strides in his first season at the helm. The Knights allowed just 24.6 points and 370 yards per game. The team shaved 1.7 yards per play off of its performance from 2015 to 2016. The problem is that the Knights only returned four starters this season and had to break in a brand new starting secondary. UCF allowed 5.8 yards per play, but held opponents to just 25.2 points per game. Doubling up the opposition in turnover margin was a big help. It is worth pointing out that UCF has allowed 7.2 yards per play and over 600 yards in its last three games against Temple, South Florida, and Memphis. If there’s one thing we know about Auburn, it’s that the Tigers can move the ball.
And they do it really, really well. Auburn averaged 6.3 yards per play this season. Jarrett Stidham struggled against Georgia, but played well on the year with a 17/4 TD/INT ratio and a 66.7 percent completion percentage. Kerryon Johnson is such an important component of this offense and he was nowhere near 100 percent against Georgia. By January 1, he should be ready to go. Johnson rushed 263 times for 1,320 yards with 17 touchdowns. He only had 13 carries for 44 yards in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn averaged five yards per carry on the season, but it was Johnson that had 263 of the team’s 598 attempts. The Tigers had nearly 13 yards per catch, led by Ryan Davis, who had 76 grabs for 768 yards. Darius Slayton was the home run threat with nearly 24 yards per catch. Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have a much better rapport than Malzahn had with ex-OC Rhett Lashlee and that seemed to help this offense with its efficiency this season.
While the offense is what we would have expected, it was the defense that stood out once again. A lot of people were probably wondering if last season was the outlier, when the Tigers held the opposition to just 5.1 yards per play. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was clearly the right hire for this team. The Tigers only allowed 4.6 yards per play this season. Opponents collectively averaged six yards per play, but Auburn held teams to 1.2 yards per carry fewer than their usual performances and the Tigers held opposing quarterbacks to a 55 percent completion rate. Some stability with the defensive coaching staff can go a long way. Prior to Steele’s hiring, the Tigers had four DCs in five years.
College Football Free Pick: Auburn Tigers -9.5
The trendy pick will probably be UCF here. The Knights are in search of perfection and there are a lot of ways to evaluate Auburn’s motivation. The Tigers are far and away the best defense that the Knights will have faced this season and therein lies the difference. Nebraska has been very understanding with the Frost hire and that shouldn’t be much of a distraction, but Frost is spending some time looking at his freshman class for Nebraska and the class of 2018. You cannot discount that in your handicapping. Giving a terrific DC like Kevin Steele nearly a month to plan for this game is a big advantage for the Tigers and that should play out here.