No. 11 UCF, No. 19 Cincinnati relish national spotlight
The undefeated, 11th-ranked Knights and once-beaten No. 19 Bearcats are ready to state their case Saturday night in a prime time, nationally televised matchup with league championship implications.
UCF (9-0, 6-0 AAC, CFP No. 11) can clinch the AAC East Division, as well as a berth in the conference title game for the second straight year, by extending the nation's longest winning streak to 23 games.
Cincinnati (9-1, 5-1, No. 24), back in the spotlight after winning four games a year ago in its first season under coach Luke Fickell, can extend the East race to the final week of the regular season by knocking off the defending AAC champions.
"It's exactly what you want as a program," UCF coach Josh Heupel said embracing — for at least for one day — Orlando being the epicenter of college football with ESPN's "College GameDay" setting up on the Knights' campus for the first time.
"You want the spotlight on you. You want each game you play to get bigger," Heupel added. "That indicates you're doing the right things inside your program, and you're winning games."
Then, there's the College Football Playoff conversation, which UCF is hoping to remain of part of by going unbeaten for a second straight season.
The biggest knock against the Knights a year ago, as well as today is strength of schedule. Heupel and Fickell both feel the level of competition in the AAC is underappreciated by outsiders, and Saturday night is an opportunity for a national audience to get a taste of the league.
UCF climbed one spot in the latest CFP rankings, the highest spot an AAC team has occupied in the five-year history of the current playoff format.
The Bearcats are relishing being back on a national stage. The 9-1 start is their best since Cincinnati had a 12-0 regular season in 2009.
"You can't not talk about it. You don't want to say there's an elephant in the room and nobody talks about it," Fickell said.
"It's a Catch-22. You love it," the coach added of the attention his team is receiving. "You love it for the campus, for our fans, for our alumni, for our kids. These guys deserve that. But if you ask me, I'm a little different. I'm under a rock. ... You've got to be able to celebrate it, and you've got to be able to handle it. I think that's the test for us."
Some other things to know about UCF and Cincinnati:
STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH
UCF, led by QB McKenzie Milton, is third in the nation in total offense and eighth in scoring. Cincinnati has the AAC's top defense. The Bearcats lead the conference in rushing defense, scoring defense, total defense and fewest first downs allowed.
Heupel doesn't want the Knights to get caught up in the magnitude of the matchup.
"We don't need to do anything differently than what we've done. There's going to be a ton of emotion in the ball game. It will be electric," the UCF coach said. "But at the end of day, it's 11 on 11. It's 11 guys operating as one. It's everybody doing their job. Don't do anything extraordinary, just do the ordinary at a very high level."
KEEP YOUR COOL
The Bearcats exchanged words with South Florida players before their game on Saturday, and then got off to a sloppy start and trailed at halftime. Fickell says keeping their cool is a point of emphasis this week.
"Having your emotions under control -- I don't think we did a great job of it last week," Fickell said. "This emotional roller coaster, you come in right before the game and all of a sudden your Adenalin just drops. We had some of those situations. So as a mature team, we can take that next step. I know there are a lot of other things that are on this game."
ON THE RUN
Sophomore running back Michael Warren II scored four times against South Florida, including his first touchdown catch. He has 18 touchdowns this season, a school record. His 17 touchdowns rushing tie the school record. He has run for 1,082 yards overall, becoming the first Cincinnati player to run for 1,000 since 2012. He's been the Bearcats' most consistent player on offense, scoring in all but one game. They're leaning on him as the season reaches its biggest games.
"He's built for November," Fickell said.