A 24-game winning streak and a second consecutive AAC Championship are at stake for No. 8 UCF on Saturday when it hosts Memphis at Spectrum Stadium.
The Knights (11-0, 8-0 AAC) are facing the Tigers (8-4, 5-3 AAC) for the fourth time in the last 14 months, having won the previous three meetings. This time around, there will be a significant difference in the matchup as UCF will be without junior quarterback McKenzie Milton after he suffered a season-ending leg injury in last week’s win over South Florida.
With that on top of the magnitude of the game itself, Saturday afternoon promises to be an emotional one.
“Both teams are going to play with great emotion because of the work that goes in [and] the opportunity that you have,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said Friday. “You build your season to go win the championship, and both teams have that opportunity.”
With Milton sidelined, the Knights offense will now be led by redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr. The quarterback change comes at a tough time for UCF, especially considering the disparity in experience between the two quarterbacks. Despite the transition, Heupel said there aren’t too many adjustments that need to be made with the offense.
“Physically, [Milton and Mack] are built differently. Fundamentally how we play and schematically how we play, it really doesn’t change,” Heupel said. “We kind of do what we do. Subtly, there will be tweaks to what one kid is more comfortable with versus another, but we won’t fundamentally change what we do offensively.”
Mack started in the Knights’ 37-10 road win over East Carolina on Oct. 20 and led a strong offensive performance in relief last week against South Florida. On the season, he has completed 21 of his 43 passes for 174 yards in addition to running for 281 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries.
“We’re excited. I think it’s another opportunity for us to showcase the talent that we have and the depth that we have,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Wyatt Miller said Monday. “A lot of teams don’t have two quarterbacks like that that can go back and forth and they can both play ball for real.”
Mack should benefit from having one of the most productive backfields in the nation. UCF ranks sixth in the country with 269.8 rushing yards per game. Most recently, that effort has been led by sophomore Greg McCrae. The former walk-on ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win, bringing his season numbers to 895 yards and eight scores. With 105 yards on Saturday, he would become the first UCF player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Storm Johnson did it in 2013.
On the other side of the field from the Knights is a team that took a different path to Saturday’s game, needing to overcome a 1-3 start in conference play to win its division. The Tigers have won four straight games, with much of their success led by junior running back Darrell Henderson. His 1,699 rushing yards this season is the second-most in the nation.
Memphis has seen some inconsistency at quarterback throughout the year, with redshirt junior Brady White needing to settle in during his first season as the starter. His production has picked up a bit as of late, but he has thrown two interceptions in each of his last two games.
“Brady prepares as well as probably any player I’ve been around,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said Friday. “He understands the role that he has and he’s got to lead an offense that does have a lot of weapons… He’s got to do a great job of controlling the game.”
Henderson and White are at the forefront of a Memphis offense that is sixth in the country in scoring offense, averaging 43.8 points per game. While the UCF defense did shut out the Tigers in the second half of their last meeting, senior defensive end Titus Davis knows that his group has found ways to improve since then.
“Earlier in the season, we had a lot of miscues and things like that,” Davis said Monday. “We weren’t paying attention to the little details and it burned us. Now that we’re doing that, we’re doing good.”
UCF and Memphis last met on Oct. 13, with the Knights overcoming a 30-17 halftime deficit to win 31-30 on the road. It was their 12th straight victory over the Tigers, though the last two meetings have been decided by a combined eight points. Saturday’s matchup is a chance at redemption for Memphis, Norvell said nothing from the past is influencing his team.
“Our focus is on this game,” he said. “We shouldn’t need to motivate our guys with anything on the outside. We’re playing for the conference championship, we’re playing a top 10 team in the country and it’s going to be a heck of a game.”
A victory for UCF would lead to a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the second straight year. After winning the conference title in 2017, the Knights took down No. 7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day to complete a perfect season.
“I’m proud of what our team has accomplished over the course of the season,” Heupel said. “[We’re] excited about this opportunity to go play for a championship.”
Saturday’s game will kick off at 3:30 p.m.