So much intrigue surrounds Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship game when the surprise team of the season Tulane (10-2, 7-1) hosts Central Florida (9-3, 8-2).
Tulane went 2-10 last year but was a bowl team the previous three seasons.
The turnaround has been so impressive that coach Willie Fritz was said to be a leading candidate to be the next Georgia Tech head coach. However, Brent Key ended up getting the job.
This is Fritz’s seventh season, and it is the fourth time that Tulane has earned a bowl bid
Before he arrived in 2016, Tulane had earned four bowl berths in the previous 35 seasons.
Even more than the news about Fritz is the fact that both teams are extremely familiar with each other. They just met on Nov. 12, when UCF earned a 38-31 victory in New Orleans.
It was a wild game, as the score suggests, and what other kind has there been this year among AAC contenders? Tulane cut the margin to 38-31 on a Michael Pratt 6-yard scoring pass to Shae Wyatt and the conversion kick with 1:46 left. UCF then recovered the ensuing onside kick to clinch the win.
As the first game indicated, this should be an explosive contest, with plenty of big-play performers.
One of the key questions is will UCF use two quarterbacks?
UCF needed to beat USF in its finale on Saturday to earn a berth in the AAC title game. This seemed like an easy task since USF entered the game 1-10, had fired coach Jeff Scott a few weeks earlier, and finished its season 130th out of 131 FBS teams in scoring defense, allowing 41.7 points per game.
Against UCF, the defense struggled, but the offense came to life. It still wasn’t enough as UCF clinched the berth with a 46-39 home win against South Florida.
UCF trailed 39-38 before Alec Holler made a ridiculous one-handed 14-yard touchdown catch from Mikey Keene with just 20 seconds remaining.
Now the UCF quarterback situation will be interesting. John Rhys Plumlee started against USF and all he did was complete all nine passes for 73 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. Plumlee really hurt USF with his legs, rushing for 133 yards (16.6 avg.) and two touchdowns.
Keene completed 15 of 19 for 129 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Plumlee, the Mississippi transfer, is the better runner, while Keene is considered the better passer.
UCF coach Gus Malzahn mentioned after the game that Plumlee had a hamstring problem and that is why he brought in Keene. The coach said that Plumlee hasn’t been healthy for a while.
During Monday’s media call, he said Plumlee continues to get treatment.
“This was our off-day, but he feels better than he did yesterday,” Malzahn said. “He’s been dealing with this thing a few weeks so the good thing is he knows how to properly manage it. We’re just hoping each day he’ll feel better and better.”
At least Malzahn knows he can win with either quarterback. In the earlier win over Tulane, Plumlee went all the way and rushed for 176 yards (9.8 avg.) and two touchdowns and completed 17 of 30 for 130 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions.
As for Fritz, he knows his quarterback will be Michael Pratt, a seasoned junior with 31 career starts.
Tulane clinched the berth in the AAC title game and home-field advantage with a Black Friday Special – a 27-24 win at Cincinnati, that snapped the Bearcats’ 32-game win streak at Nippert Field.
Now that is the way to clinch first place in the regular season.
The player who carried the Green Wave was running back junior Tyjae Spears, who rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries.
Spears (5-11, 195) rushed for 130 yards on just eight carries in the earlier loss to UCF and has gained 1,177 yards (6.2 avg.) and 14 touchdowns this season.
Despite his size, he can gain yards running through the tackles but is especially dangerous when he can get to the outside.
Due to Spears’ effectiveness against the Bearcats, Pratt played more of a complimentary role, completing 13 of 22 for 162 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. He also ran for 30 yards on nine attempts.
Pratt can also hurt teams with his arm. During the earlier loss to UCF, he completed 23 of 39 for 236 yards three touchdowns, and no interceptions, while running for another score.
Just like the first meeting, this one figures to be high scoring.
It will be UCF’s final chance to win an AAC title before bolting next season for the Big 12.
The AAC has held a championship game since 2015 and UCF has won two titles since then, in 2017 and 2018. This is Tulane’s first time in the title game.
There are plenty of storylines and potential heroes for both teams in a game that could be even better than the regular season meeting.