Last year, UCF’s home game against Cincinnati served as a validation of sorts. After morphing into the most controversial team in the nation over the last year and a half, the Knights got College GameDay to campus and finally had a primetime matchup against a ranked opponent.
UCF made the most of that opportunity, dispatching Cincinnati with ease on national television and earning a stranglehold on the Group of Five New Year’s Six bid.
This year is different. Very different.
The Knights are just five games into the season, but their conference championship aspirations and New Year’s Six hopes could be over by tonight. Unlike last year, UCF will have to head out on the road to play in one of the best atmospheres the AAC has to offer.
“[We] expect a great crowd. Competitive environment, one that our kids are gonna be excited about and are excited about,” Coach Josh Heupel said. “If it’s extremely loud, then being able to handle that and play in sync offensively, 11 guys together.”
Yes, it’s still early in the year. But with a loss to Pitt in its previous road outing, UCF simply can’t afford to lose this game. Doing so would effectively shut the door on any hopes of a major bowl bid and make it close to impossible to win the conference.
If Cincinnati wins tonight, UCF would need to win out and see the Bearcats drop two conference games to play for the AAC title. With the rest of the East Division looking weak, and Cincy missing out on No. 24 SMU as a crossover opponent, that’s not looking likely.
This is also probably the toughest team that the Knights will have played on the road since taking off in 2017. In that span, the best road opponent the team has faced was 8-6 Memphis, a game UCF won by a single point. 3-1 Cincy is almost certainly primed for a 10-win season.
And on top of all that, the Bearcats have made clear for weeks now that this game is their Super Bowl. They want revenge from last year, know that this is a must-win game to take the AAC, and are expecting a sellout at 40,000-seat Nippert Stadium.
Outside of UCF’s Bounce House, the AAC is not known for its tough environments. Playing in front of a packed, loud, opposing stadium will be a new experience for UCF.
And its an environment Cincinnati has done well in. The Bearcats have won nine straight home games dating back to 2017. UCF has typically performed well on the road, but the loss to Pitt showed how quickly things can get out of hand when the Knights are caught off guard.
There’s no denying that UCF is the more talented team. The Knights are putting up 49 points a game behind the stellar play of freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel, a ridiculously deep group of running backs, and outstanding receivers like Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon. And the defense, which held the team back at points over the last two years, has unquestionably improved this season.
Cincy has shown its limitations, struggling with 1-4 UCLA at home and posting an embarrassing 42-point loss to Ohio State.
But the most talented team doesn’t always win. UCF is better than Pitt, but the Knights had simply underestimated their opponent after beating them easily last year. They cannot make that mistake tonight when so much more is on the line.
“Every game matters. I don’t care if you’re at home or on the road,” Heupel said. “Every game you prepare for and obviously the is a big part of the conference race so it’s a big game.”
In fact, it’s the biggest game UCF has left.