COLLEGE FOOTBALL LOOK AHEAD

Auburn stands in way of UCF’s perfect season

Sports Xchange

December 26, 2017 at 11:58 pm.

Sep 23, 2017; Columbia, MO, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive back Stephen Roberts (14) runs against Missouri Tigers defensive back Adam Sparks (14) in the first half at Faurot Field. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 23, 2017; Columbia, MO, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive back Stephen Roberts (14) runs against Missouri Tigers defensive back Adam Sparks (14) in the first half at Faurot Field. Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Auburn Tigers hoped that the SEC Championship Game would be the first of two trips to Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season.

Auburn was aiming for the College Football Playoff title game, though, and not the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Instead, Georgia ended the Tigers’ national championship hopes with a 28-7 victory in Atlanta on Dec. 2 and now Auburn is spending New Year’s Day in Atlanta with much less at stake.

The Peach Bowl is a consolation price for No. 7 Auburn (10-3). However, that isn’t the case for No. 12 Central Florida (12-0).

The Knights, winless just three seasons ago, are major college football’s only unbeaten team and in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the first time as the best of the non-Power Five conference teams.

UCF won the American Athletic Conference title with a wild 62-55, double-overtime shootout against South Florida on Dec. 2 in what appeared to be third-year head coach Scott Frost’s final game.

Frost, though, is sticking with the Knights for the Peach Bowl before moving on, along with most of his assistants, full time to Nebraska.

“There’s some unusual circumstances, but our staff is completely committed and we’re going to do everything we can for this football team,” Frost said. “It’s an honor to be invited to this game. These players have poured their hearts out to accomplish a lot this year.”

Former Missouri assistant Josh Heupel, who quickly was named to replace Frost, will be a spectator for the Peach Bowl, spending his time in the Mercedes-Benz press box observing his future team.

Some rumors also had Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn potentially moving on, but he signed a seven-year contract extension worth a reported $49 million to stay with the Tigers.

“I’m happy at Auburn,” Malzahn said. “Any time you have stability, especially in this day and time in college football, I think it gives you an advantage. We’ve got a very stable program right now. The future’s very bright.”

UCF comes into the Peach Bowl as the nation’s top scoring team at 49.4 points per game, while Auburn is ranked ninth defensively at 17.3 points.

The Tigers never allowed more than 28 points this season, while the Knights never scored fewer than 31.

There’s no questioning Auburn’s credentials, but that isn’t necessarily the case with UCF.

The Tigers beat No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama late in the regular season after an eight-point loss at No. 1 Clemson early in the year.

Auburn lost the rematch with Georgia, of course, but in that game, SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson, who has 1,320 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns, was severely hampered by a shoulder injury.

With the time off, the junior tailback is healthy now and he gives the Tigers a potent weapon on the ground to go with the passing of sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham.

UCF has a prolific sophomore quarterback to match Stidham, though.

McKenzie Milton ranks No. 5 nationally in passing touchdowns (35), No. 2 in passing efficiency (184.8), No. 2 in completion percentage (69.2), No. 5 in total offense (357.7 yards per game) and No. 6 in passing yards per completion (15.24).

Stidham, a transfer from Baylor who ranks second in the nation in career passing efficiency, is second in the SEC in passing yards (2,827) and leads the SEC in completion percentage (66.7).

Since the creation of the College Football Playoff, the Group of Five representative is 2-1 in New Year’s Six games against Power Five competition. No. 21 Boise State defeated No. 12 Arizona 38-30 in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, and No. 18 Houston defeated No. 9 Florida State 38-24 in the 2015 Peach Bowl.

Auburn is 3-0 against UCF, with all three wins coming between 1997 and 1999.

UCF has never played in the Peach Bowl, while Auburn’s appearance in the event, which is marking its 50th year, will be its sixth. The Tigers defeated Virginia 43-24 in December 2011.

Adrian Killins, the Knights’ leading rusher with 762 yards and 10 touchdowns, gave the Tigers a little bulletin-board material when he said that Auburn “hasn’t seen any speed like we have.”

The Tigers didn’t jump into a war of words, though.

“I give them credit,” Auburn safety Stephen Roberts said. “They’re a great team, they have good speed, but we come out and play. Speed and stuff and all that don’t matter to us as a defense. We still have 11 guys that are going to play. Trash talk is a lot, but it’s not much.”