No. 11 UCF, No. 24 Cincinnati collide in AAC showdown

UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton is throwing for nearly 290 yards per game this season.Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

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The American Athletic Conference Championship Game may be two weeks away, but it’s hard to imagine that game exceeding the buildup for Saturday’s matchup in Orlando featuring undefeated Central Florida against once-beaten Cincinnati.

Kickoff for the nationally televised prime-time affair in Orlando’s Spectrum Stadium is 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

The No. 11 Knights (9-0, 6-0 AAC) will put their 22-game winning streak on the line against what figures to be their toughest test yet in the Bearcats (9-1, 5-1), who have won three in a row since a 24-17 loss last month at Temple.

With UCF claiming a “national championship” after finishing the 2017 season 13-0 and clamoring for more recognition and higher ranking this year, the game has drawn considerable national attention. ESPN is bringing its cameras and UCF critic Kirk Herbstreit to Orlando for its weekly “College GameDay” show to kick off the day.

“Five years ago when I walked on campus, I didn’t think this was something that could happen, but I’m glad that it did,” senior offensive tackle Wyatt Miller said. “Like I said, we’re fortunate to play in this game especially in front of this crowd.

“That’s a milestone for this university. It’s not only big for us, it’s big for Cincinnati, it’s big for this conference. It’s huge. It shows the kind of football the American Conference plays. We’re not some kind of small-time league. We are part of the big boys and we’re going to show it Saturday night.”

Knights coach Josh Heupel, who took over the program when Scott Frost left for Nebraska, isn’t exactly downplaying the significance of the matchup, but he also is taking a cautionary approach. He calls all the hoopla “outside noise” and emphasizes maintaining focus.

“We like our program to be in a situation like this where each and every week the games get bigger because you’re performing the right way,” he said. “So we’re going to embrace the opportunity and get our kids ready to play.”

In his second season, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell is well aware of the effect the pregame atmosphere could have on his team. Fickell came to Cincinnati from Ohio State, where in 2011 he served as the interim head coach when Jim Tressel was forced to resign.

“First time a lot of guys have been on a big stage like this,” he said. “We got to be able to control our emotions again and handle the situation and scene.”

Fickell’s Bearcats already have a 1,000-yard rusher in running back Michael Warren (1,082) and have a defense that has limited opponents to just over 277 yards per game in total offense, the sixth stingiest in the country. UCF has averaged 271.4 yards rushing alone. Quarterback McKenzie Milton has averaged better than 288 ypg passing.

“It starts with them up front,” Heupel said of Cincy’s defense. “I think their front four (ends Kimoni Fitz and Michael Pitts and tackles Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland) is as good as there is, so it’s a great challenge for us in the run game to create movement and create space our backs, but in the pass game as well to be able to protect the quarterback.”

Milton leads UCF”s high-octane, up-tempo offense (543 ypg, No. 3 nationally).

“I don’t that I’ve really played against what is that they do, the tempo that they play at,” Fickell said. “It’s really quite unique. Obviously, you’ve got a great quarterback like McKenzie, and not just because he’s a great runner, but his ability to manage at the pace that they go and make the decisions.”

Almost lost in the buildup is what’s at stake with the conference race. UCF will clinch the AAC’s East Division with a victory. Cincinnati would still have to win its regular-season finale at home against East Carolina to secure a spot in the conference title game.

“There’s going to be emotion in the ballgame,” Heupel said. “It’s going to be electric. But at the end of the day, it’s still going to be 11 on 11.”