Feature graphic made by Lauren Anikis.
UCF (6-6) v. Arkansas State (7-5)
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida
When: Saturday, Dec. 17 at 5:30 p.m. EST on CBS Sports Network
How they got here:
The Knights finished the regular season 6-6 and 4-4 in the AAC. Coming off an 0-12 season, the third winless season in the program’s history, not much was expected of UCF this season. Additionally, the Knights’ coaching staff was completely overhauled in the offseason. Experts across the college football universe predicted UCF to finish at the bottom of the AAC East. Instead, the Knights placed third and are going bowling.
UCF finished its non-conference schedule at 2-2, with losses to Big Ten foes Michigan and Maryland. The Knights’ conference schedule followed the same trend. Their losses were as expected: Temple, Houston, South Florida and Tulsa, all bowl-eligible teams, but they beat the worse opposition to get bowl-eligible and finish the season at .500.
Why they can win:
Scott Frost, the former offensive coordinator at Oregon and head coach of the Knights, tends to run an up-tempo playing style that favors running backs and mobile quarterbacks. The Knights like to catch other teams at their most vulnerable position. This was why they almost beat Temple. If it wasn’t for a late second-half offensive surge by the Owls, UCF would’ve had the game comfortably. After a recruiting campaign where Frost picked up several 3-star defensive players, UCF’s play in that department has greatly improved from last year. The combined high-powered, fast-paced offense and improved defense provides an attack that leaves opposing defenses on the field for long period of time, causing them to tire out.
Arkansas State’s defense was suspect this season. While they only let up 15.3 point per game in conference games, they let up 36 points per contest in the non-conference. With this being against a team from a stronger conference than the Sun Belt, it could be a concern.
Other than the play on the field, the game is being played in Orlando, Florida, the home of the Knights. The game will basically be a home game for Central Florida, a certain advantage. It’s known that the Knights have a fast-paced offense, but it operates from their run game. If they can get their running game going early, combined with a few three-and-outs on the defensive end, UCF should come out of this game a winner by close to two touchdowns.
Player to watch: WR Tre’Quan Smith
If there is anyone to watch from UCF, it’s star sophomore wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, who has 54 receptions for 808 yards and five touchdowns on the season. Smith has improved on his numbers from last season, when he only totaled 724 receiving yards. This is due in large part to freshman quarterback Mackenzie Milton, who didn’t have the best first year, but was a big improvement from the season previous. Smith’s long this season was a 72-yard TD reception. Expect him to be a deep threat for Milton, and don’t be surprised if he has a big day against the Red Wolves.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
How they got here:
Arkansas State finished 7-5 overall with a 7-1 conference record. Early on in the season, though, no one expected the Red Wolves to even become bowl eligible. They lost their first four games, all non-conference matchups. By those odds, it was very unlikely the Red Wolves could right the ship before the end of the season, but they were up to the task. ASU tied for first in the Sun Belt with Appalachian State, earning it a Cure Bowl berth. It was Arkansas State’s fifth conference title in six years, and the Red Wolves will look to ride their hot streak to Orlando to win their third-ever bowl appearance.
Why they can win:
The Red Wolves’ offense is led by sophomores Justice Hansen and Warren Wand. Hansen threw for over 2,500 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Wand ran for more than 850 yards with seven touchdowns. If they can get both of these players going, ASU’s offense will operate with ease and UCF will have a hard time getting into the game.
UCF has many holes on both sides of the ball. Milton’s threw just one more touchdown than his eight interceptions. He was also sacked 21 times this season, which shows the vulnerability of the UCF offensive line. Milton’s inexperience and UCF’s issues with pass protection are weaknesses the Red Wolves will look to exploit.
UCF has also had trouble closing games out defensively. In its double-overtime loss to Maryland, the Terps’ starting quarterback Perry Hills got injured during the overtime period, yet the UCF defense collapsed and allowed backup Tyrell Pigrome to run for a game-winning 24-yard touchdown. In their 26-25 loss to Temple, the Knights were up by as many as 18 points before blowing the lead and giving up a last-second, game-winning touchdown to the Owls.
While the scoring defense numbers for Arkansas State aren’t strong, there is a silver lining. The Red Wolves allowed just 15.3 point per game in conference, their final eight games, which is a major plus going into the game.
Player to watch: RB Warren Wand
As stated above, Wand is the Red Wolves’ leading rusher. This season, he went off for two 100-yard plus rushing games, one of which being a 135-yard performance the last game of the season against Texas State. He has been consistent this year, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and about 72 yards a game. He’s improved as the year has gone on, too. In his last four games, Wand’s average went up, moving close to 88 rushing yards per contest. After his performance against Texas State, he’s due to once again put up big numbers.
Edited by Justin Meyer.
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