Can the Tigers Run Down Central Florida?
The SEC doesn’t have speed like this, or so this running back claims.
War Eagle, everybody! It is finally an Auburn football game week again! On Monday morning, New Year’s Day, the Auburn Tigers will take on the nation’s only remaining undefeated team in Atlanta. The University of Central Florida Golden Knights, champions of the American Conference, will be trying to run their record to 13–0 at Auburn’s expense. For the idle observer, it’s an opportunity to see if there is really much of a gap between the Power 5 conferences and the lesser-regarded “group of five.” In the previous 25 bowl seasons, the conference formerly known as the Big East produced exactly 1 national champion, Miami, in 2001. Miami is now part of the ACC. Meanwhile, the SEC has 12 national titles during that same period.
Auburn cannot win this game on résumés or past SEC bowl experiences. Like every game, it will be won or lost on the field. I’ve heard lots of fans opining that they can’t get excited about this game since Auburn did not make the playoff field. We will see on the carpet in Atlanta whether this malaise has crept into the team. I fully expect Central Florida to play inspired football with little or nothing to lose.
In the past, Auburn played UCF twice on homecoming and got stiff competition in both games. In 1998, Auburn trailed most of the game before a simple quick-hitch pass from Gabe Gross to Karsten Bailey turned into a tackle-breaking 57-yard touchdown. Auburn escaped that day, 10–6. The next year, Auburn was again trailing late in the game, 10–7. The Tigers had driven down the field, but with the clock under 4 minutes in the ball game, Auburn faced 3rd and goal at the 16. Backup quarterback Jeff Klein heaved up a prayer to the end zone, and Reggie Worthy climbed the ladder to haul in the high pass. The dam broke on UCF after that. It gave the ball up on downs at the Auburn 8 and immediately gave up an 8-yard run to Heath Evans. A pick-six interception by linebacker Alex Lincoln followed, and a tight ballgame became a deceptive 28–10 win for Auburn.
This past season, Auburn faced combos of speedy running backs, and dangerous, mobile quarterbacks week in and week out. Shai Werts in the opener. Kelly Bryant at Clemson. Drew Lock. Nick Fitzgerald. Shea Patterson. Jalen Hurts. The list goes on. The Auburn defense contained and strangled such offenses for much of the season. They’ve had a month to look at film on Central Florida and get ready.
I have long had the opinion that offense tends to suffer in bowl games, thanks to a long layoff between games. And, of course, there is more time for defenses to get ready. This year has been a bit of an anomaly thus far with some pretty high-scoring affairs this bowl season. Oh, we’ve seen clunker games, too. I got a kick out of watching Boston College offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler calling plays last night. BC got the ball back with about 3 minutes left, trailing by 7. The first 2 plays, Loeffler lined ’em up in a heavy set, and BC ran the ball up the middle, burning nearly half the remaining time off the clock on 2 useless plays. A 3rd-and-prayer heave into double coverage finished that drive later. I’m so glad he’s not at Auburn anymore!
We can look at past data on the Malzahn offense in bowl games to see if we can draw some conclusions. Malzahn’s first bowl game was at Arkansas in the Cap One, but Gus had one foot out the door already, and Arkansas went completely conventional offense in that game, losing 17–14. At Tulsa in 2007, Malzahn’s offense put up 63 on Bowling Green in the GMAC. The next season against Ball State, the offense scored 45. At Auburn in the Outback, the Tigers scored 38 on Northwestern. The BCS title game featured 22 points against Oregon, which was kind of an outlier. In 2011, Auburn put 43 points on Virginia. At Arkansas State, Malzahn’s Red Wolves managed only 17 against Kent State but won the game. If I’m remembering right, that was a rain game. As the Auburn head coach, Malzahn managed 31 points in back-to-back-to-back years against Florida State, Wisconsin and Memphis. Auburn had just 19 against Oklahoma, last season after a quarterback injury. My conclusion is that most of the time Gus Malzahn’s offenses find a way to score points in bowl games.
The next thing to look at is Central Florida’s defense. The Knights only held 3 opponents under 20 points all season and none from October onwards. UCF gave up 33 to Austin Peay, 42 to South Florida and 55 to Memphis.
On the other side of the ball, UCF has not seen anything resembling a top-10 defense. The only Power 5 opponent UCF has played was Maryland in a 38–10 win, and Maryland was operating way down the depth chart at quarterback for that one. How will UCF match up with Auburn’s front 7? I suspect that it will try to use a game plan that gets the ball out quickly. The problem for the Knights is that Auburn’s back end can play the ball in the air and covers pretty well. Runs to the boundary are typically strung out and stopped for very little. UCF does have speed and a great quarterback. Will they be able to score enough to keep up with Auburn?
This Auburn Tiger is looking forward to a great college football weekend. We will have the usual TrackEmTigers.com open thread up and running on Monday morning, and I’ll be at the keyboard for a play by play. War Eagle! And beat UCF!