Before Central Florida departs the American Athletic Conference for the Big 12 next season, the Knights are intent on having one last bit of glory as an AAC member.
Since the AAC was formed in 2013, UCF has won three outright championships and shared another. In 2017, the Knights went 13-0 and declared themselves national champions even though they were just No. 6 in the final polls.
There were two losing seasons in the first nine, but after going 0-12 and 6-7 in 2015 and 2016, the Knights then went 35-4 the next three years.
Last year they were 9-4 in Gus Malzahn’s first season after getting fired at Auburn. On that topic, how bad does Auburn look, since the Tigers are already looking for a successor to Malzahn’s successor Bryan Harsin?
Either way, Malzahn has the Knights seeking yet another title and they took a major step with this past week’s 38-31 win at Tulane, which entered the game ranked No. 17.
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Tulane entered the contest allowing 127 rushing yards per game and had surrendered just four touchdowns on the ground all season. UCF rushed for 336 yards (6.2 avg.) and four scores.
It was the eighth time since being an AAC member that UCF has beaten a nationally ranked team and second this year. Earlier, UCF earned a 25-21 win over No. 20 Cincinnati, snapping the Bearcats’ 19-game win streak against AAC competition.
More importantly, UCF has put itself in a great position to earn a berth in the AAC championship. The top two teams in the 11-team league will compete in the Dec. 3 title game.
Currently, UCF, Cincinnati, and Tulane are tied for first place in the AAC with 5-1 records. UCF obviously owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against both teams.
SMU and Houston are hanging by a thread at 4-2.
Here are the remaining two games for the contenders:
UCF – vs Navy (3-4) and at South Florida (0-6). The Navy game can’t be taken for granted. Just this past game, Navy lost 35-32 to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish led 35-13 at the half, but Navy kept fighting and owned a 16-0 fourth-quarter advantage. Navy also has a win over East Carolina, the only AAC team to beat UCF. As for the USF game, that should be a rout as the records suggest.
Cincinnati – at Temple (1-5) and home vs. Tulane (5-1). The Tulane game looks like it is lining up to be a defacto playoff game to earn entrance into the league championship.
Tulane – home vs SMU (4-2) and at Cincinnati (5-1). This is by far the toughest remaining slate among the three first-place teams.
SMU – at Tulane (5-1) and home vs. Memphis (3-4) The Mustangs have lost to UCF and Cincinnati and would need an awful lot of help.
Houston – at East Carolina (3-3) and home vs Tulsa (1-5). Houston, which has lost to Tulane and SMU, didn’t even have to face Cincinnati or UCF and has not taken advantage of that.
UCF has rebounded after being routed by East Carolina, 34-13. Since then the Knights have won three in a row over Cincinnati, Memphis, and Tulane.
When UCF lost QB Dillon Gabriel to the transfer portal and Oklahoma, there was a lot of skepticism as to whether the Knights could keep contending.
Yet, Malzahn has worked well with Mississippi transfer John Rhys Plumlee, who threw for 132 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions and ran for 176 yards (9.8 avg.) and two touchdowns in the win over Tulane. His 67-yard scoring run was the longest rushing TD of the season for the Knights. Plumlee was named the AAC Offensive Player of the Week after his performance.
UCF is third in the AAC in scoring (35.9 ppg.) and second in scoring defense (20.0 ppg.), an envied combination.
The Knights are also first in the AAC in rushing (249.5 yards per game) and yards per carry (5.4). They are also second in rushing defense, allowing 124.5 yards per game.
Plumlee is fourth in the AAC in rushing, averaging 78.7 yards per game. While Plumlee could be more consistent in the passing game, he is still a dual threat and is a big reason the Knights are now the team to beat in the AAC and a major contender to earn the New Year’s Day six spot as well.