Two Florida rivals are set to play on Thanksgiving weekend with postseason stakes on the line. So far, that’s nothing new.
What is new: the game isn’t Florida State-Florida. As those longtime powers scrape for bowl eligibility, UCF and USF ready for a showcase.
No. 15 UCF has exploded to the best start in school history. The Knights are one of only four undefeated teams in FBS, with a high-octane offense and Scott Frost, the hottest name in college coaching. The Knights are two wins from a spot in the highest tier of non-Playoff bowl games.
USF sits in the unexpected role of spoiler. With a Charmin-soft schedule, USF was the one expected to march unblemished. But despite a 9-1 start, Charlie Strong’s Bulls can still overtake the division, then get a chance to beat Memphis and take that New Year’s bid.
And looming over all that is the question of where their conference stands in college football.
This rivalry’s history is short, but dramatic since before it even began.
UCF began play in what is now FBS in 1996 after over a decade in FCS and Division II. USF didn’t field its first team until 1997 and would join FBS in 2001.
Fans and alums wanted the two to play. The schools might have a commuter rep, but UCF’s undergraduate enrollment has swelled to the highest in the nation. USF is routinely in the top 25.
The game made sense, given the stretch of Interstate 4 that connects the two, just 90 miles apart. But it took time.
Like Florida and Florida State decades before, politicians inserted themselves. Lee Constantine, a UCF alum and state representative, twice proposed amendments in the early 2000s to force the schools to play each other. It became a public war of words while USF was in transition between athletic directors.
"We've tried to schedule them, but they've said no. As soon as they get a new athletic director, I'll try again," UCF Athletic Director Steve Sloan said of playing USF. "[In] just about every sport, we compete against each other. I think in football, it would be a mini Florida-Florida State rivalry."
"It's the new "War on I-4,' " said [UCF then-AD Steve Orsini], co-opting the slogan used by Tampa Bay and Orlando in the Arena Football League. "From the time Lee Roy and I met in person in Lakeland, I saw the interest. The thing that put it over the top was Lee Roy Selmon's willingness to work it out.
"Our fans, players, administrators, the community - they all wanted to see this happen. It's a natural rivalry."
The Bulls owned the series early and lead 6-2 overall. The teams played annually from 2005-2008, and USF won each time.
Things peaked in 2008, with an overtime game coming down to a fourth down. After throwing two TDs late in fourth quarter to tie the game, UCF QB Michael Greco had a chance to extend the game. He was stopped inches short, and the Bulls won in Orlando.
Then there was a break. The Bulls cited having a high amount of in-state opponents. In 2011, then-UCF athletic director George O’Leary had hinted at a booster function of the series returning. USF shot that down.
Finally, in 2013, both teams would face each other again, after they moved up to the American Athletic Conference.
And now there is even more recent bad blood. In 2016, with the result strictly academic, USF ran the ball, scoring a very late touchdown to win by 17.
“Scott [Frost] told me after the game he respected our team, but he’d remember that last touchdown,” [then-head coach Willie] Taggart said.
While Taggart is now gone to Oregon, the two face each other in the best possible scenario for the AAC.
“I’ve always viewed them as potential juggernauts,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said in an interview with SB Nation. “I call it beachfront property, although they’re not on the beach. It’s important for the conference to have these two schools be good and be anchors.”
The two have quite the stage for this game.
It’s at 3:30 pm ET on ABC on Black Friday. There is little you’d rather be watching in the time slot.
In only Frost’s second year as a head coach, he has an offensive juggernaut. The Knights run a similar style to Frost’s old boss, Chip Kelly. For broadcasters, that creates an interesting challenge.
What you’ll see on the screen are motions and shifts and triple option principals. How it’s presented to you is the job of broadcaster Adam Amin and his partner Dusty Dvoracek.
“My goal for tempo teams is: let’s establish them early, and then let’s just kinda back off and watch them work,” Amin said in an interview with SB Nation. “We’ll identify the right guys. We’ll identify the skill players that need to be identified, but let’s just kinda scale back.
“Especially when you do have a good game or an important game or a hyped game, you don’t have to do much of the hyping yourself. You can just let the records that are on the screen and the fact that UCF is gonna have a big number in the Playoff ranking next to it on the graphic, you just kinda let that speak for itself too.”
The Knights rank in the top five of many per-game offensive statistics and are ruthlessly efficient in opponent-adjusted metrics.
Frost’s public persona is reserved. Amin, members of the crew, and the coach will have a customary pre-game meeting on Thanksgiving. Dealing with coaches who don’t dish details is part of the job.
“The more a coach gives us, the more I can give the benefit of the doubt if something does not go right,” Amin said. “That’s all we’re trying to do because we want to get it right. Because if we’re gonna analyze something — a situation — we want to make sure we’re giving an opinion based on some kind of evidence.”
With Frost, there’s an obvious talking point: whether he’s going to be UCF’s coach next year.
In 2015, the Knights went 0-12 in George O’Leary’s last season. An Orlando bar offered free beer until UCF finally won a game. In Frost’s second season, that bar is offering the same as long he remains in Orlando.
Frost has been linked to his alma mater, Nebraska, likely to open soon under new athletic director Bill Moos. Frost has also been tied to the Florida job, with a fan base pining for some semblance of offense.
“Scott’s done a really good job of handling it so far. With all the stories that are out there, it’s impossible to ignore,” Amin said.
USF wasn’t supposed to be playing the underdog role.
When the season began, the Bulls were picked to win the AAC East by an overwhelming margin. They returned Quinton Flowers at quarterback and replaced Taggart with veteran Power 5 coach Strong. USF had gone 11-2 last season and finished on a five-game winning streak.
But 2017 has been a season of fits and starts. Sometimes USF starts slow. Other times, they let teams claw back into games. Inconsistent performances finally caught up in Week 10 when USF lost to Houston at home, 34-28.
Strong brought offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert to Tampa from Texas. That appears to be an issue, per the editor of SB Nation’s USF blog, The Daily Stampede.
“We’re begging for more screens. Begging for RPOs, begging for things like that,” Collin Sherwin said. “The biggest weapon they have is Quinton Flowers and his wheels, but they just seem real hesitant to have Quinton run. Some of USF’s best plays last year were just drawn up in the dirt and go.”
USF’s 7.17 yards-per-play rate last season was sixth in the nation. This season, that is down to 5.92, 46th nationally. USF is on pace to exceed last year’s number of plays (928 in 13 games), as they’ve already ran 835 in just 10 games. Usually more plays tax defenses. But USF doesn’t have the punch, particularly in the red zone. The Bulls are seventh in red zone attempts, but 87th in scoring percentage there.
Most of USF’s opponents were never going to make that deficiency truly matter; the Bulls’ strength of schedule has been dead last in FBS. S&P+ No. 3 UCF is a different animal, only the fourth team in the top 70 of the S&P+ rankings USF has played.
“If you could take last year’s offense and this year’s defense, you’ve got a team that could really compete with anyone in the country,” Sherwin said. “They’ve sorta been able to get one thing fixed, but not the other thing fixed.”
The Bulls are 9.5-point underdogs, and the Vegas total sits at 64. That might not hint at a Big 12-style shootout, but there should be points in droves.
“They haven’t been the underdog since the FSU game last year,” Sherwin said. “They certainly didn’t play well that day. They gave up 478 yards on the ground. It’s just been so long. You’ve got a senior-laden squad. They’ve got a ton of kids that are seniors that are gonna play. So they’ve got the experience the leadership, all that kinda stuff.”
A win means a conference title berth and shot at New Year’s, but not much more than that.
USF is not ranked by the Playoff committee. With this schedule, it’s doubtful the committee would have even ranked a 10-0 USF. Consider that an undefeated Marshall in 2014 had to wait five rankings announcements to get to No. 24.
UCF hasn’t been rising as it wins, either. After starting at No. 18 on Halloween, they’ve only risen to No. 15 through five rankings.
“I don't think the system has credibility if a team like UCF or USF or Memphis doesn't have a chance to compete for a championship, if they're a really good team, because they're in a so-called Group of 5,” AAC commish Aresco said. “I hate that term. I hate being lumped in. We've separated ourselves from the Group of 5 [one term for FBS’ five non-power conferences] by a lot of measurements.”
While Wisconsin is now filling its resume out with good teams, a few weeks ago, UCF had a similar resume, yet was ranked 10 spots behind the Badgers.
UCF vs. Wisconsin
|Best win||40-13 vs. #22 Memphis||33-24 vs. #25 Northwestern|
|Second best win||31-24 at 6-3 SMU||31-14 vs. 6-3 FAU|
|Third best win||31-21 at 5-3 Navy||uhhh idk|
|vs. winning teams||4-0||2-0|
|Avg. score vs. FBS||45-18||36-12|
|vs. Big Ten||1-0||6-0|
|Strength of Record||#10||#8|
This week, there are seven two-loss teams ranked ahead of UCF, and three-loss Mississippi State jumped UCF after barely beating 4-7 Arkansas.
“It’s frustrating,” Aresco said. ”It’s been frustrating for a long time. I think in part it’s strictly the bias for the P5. There’s no question about it. The lack of respect still for what we do in our conference, and this is what troubles me.
“It irritates me, and it irritated me last year. We had a number of three- and four-loss teams ahead of some of our teams with one loss. All you can do is keep winning, keep playing well, and keep promoting the conference, and I think we have to tell people about certain things.”
The AAC has been aggressively marketing a “Power 6” idea. It’s pushed to alter NCAA legislation that allows the Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Notre Dame to make separate rules for themselves.
When the 10 conferences in FBS agreed to the CFP structure a few years ago, there were no assurances that things would be a level playing field, but you understand Aresco’s gripes.
“Longer term, this kind of thing doesn’t help us, clearly, when you have teams this good not getting the respect they deserve,” Aresco said. “They’ll go out and play a bowl game and win decisively, and they’ll end up in the top 10 at the end of the year, but I’d like to see them in the top 10 of these rankings.”
It is undeniable, however, that this game is huge for the league.
Both USF and UCF were candidates to jump for the Big 12 last fall. But the Big 12 did not expand, and both stuck around.
They’ve risen as teams like Cincinnati and ECU have fallen. In the CFP rankings, UCF is five spots ahead of Memphis, whose only loss is to the Knights. Showing depth is important, something other G5 leagues haven’t done.
As far as conference games go, the league has never had a bigger one in its short history. Not with these stakes, and not with this talent.
So the War on I-4’s battle lines are drawn.
A sellout crowd will forego shopping to watch football. The Knights are a souped-up convertible with as much horsepower as any team in the country. The Bulls have what it takes under the hood, but have struggled to click on all cylinders.
The road has been long, but now it’s clear.