One of the defining aspects of New Year’s Day is watching college football. We have the Tournament of Rose Parade, followed by hours of top-ranked teams dueling in the premier bowl games of the season. This January 1st, before the College Football Playoffs begin, the 50th annual Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl pits Auburn from the Southeastern Conference against UCF from the American Athletic Conference. In the CFP rankings, Auburn finished 7th and UCF finished 12th. The Peach Bowl begins at 12:30 pm on ESPN.
How did they get there?
Auburn: Auburn has been on the rise over the last couple of seasons and was expected to have an outside shot at the SEC title. After an early, close loss to reigning national champion and current semifinalist Clemson, Auburn went on a bit of a winning streak before being upended by LSU. With two losses, Auburn ran the table the rest of the regular season, defeating both Georgia and Alabama, who were each undefeated and ranked #1 in the country at the time of the game. The win in the Iron Bowl against Alabama secured them the SEC West championship and set them up with a rematch with Georgia in Atlanta for the SEC title and a likely CFP berth. Lightning did not strike twice and the Bulldogs defeated the Tigers 28-7. Auburn finished as the highest ranked three loss team due to their quality of wins as both Alabama and Georgia each made it into the CFP with that single loss to their resume.
UCF: Two seasons removed from a winless campaign, the Knights became the first FBS team to ever go from 0-12 to 12-0 in that span. The Knights had to adapt to upending their schedule due to Hurricane Irma. UCF ultimately had to cancel two games in September, move a conference game around, and a midseason add-on. As a result, UCF had a three-week break in-between their first two games and no bye week the rest of the season. UCF squad led the nation in scoring. Despite being undefeated, UCF struggled to gain ground in the polls and the CFP rankings as they cracked the top 10 in the AP and Coaches polls after the championship game. UCF does have the distinction of having two of the year’s most exciting games in back-to-back weeks. On Black Friday, UCF had a see-saw game against rival South Florida as the two combined for three touchdowns late in the game and a double-overtime thriller against Memphis to win the conference championship and seal up the New Years Six bowl bid.
Key Matchup #1: UCF’s QB McKenzie Milton vs Auburn’s defensive front seven – UCF’s offensive line has not been tested by a defensive line as strong as Auburn’s. One of McKenzie Milton’s strengths is his ability to extend plays with his agility and speed. Milton has taken many broken plays and turned them into solid gains. He will be facing LB Jeff Holland among others, who leads the Tigers with 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. In the SEC Championship loss to Georgia, Holland was limited to just two tackles. Along with Holland, the Tigers have Deshaun Davis, who has been a tackling machine over the second half of the season. Milton was held under 200 yards of passing once this season, throwing for 178 yards in a 38-10 win over Maryland. UCF lost lineman Aaron Evans after their last game, so Auburn is going to key in on the changes in the offensive line.
Key Matchup #2: Auburn’s RB Kerryon Johnson vs UCF’s front seven – Auburn’s strength the last couple of seasons has been their running game. Last year, it was Kamryn Pettway. This year, Kerryon Johnson stepped in due to injury and has carried the team to 1320 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. UCF’s defense, led by LBs Pat Jaskinski and Shaquem Griffin, has given up an average of 165 yards per game on the ground. Jasinksi leads the team with 96 tackles and Griffin leads the team with 5.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Key #1. UCF is well rested: UCF had a game for 11 straight weeks due to complications from Hurricane Irma. While UCF won comfortably early on in the season, the games got closer and closer towards the end. The last two against rival South Florida and Memphis for the conference championship were incredibly close. UCF finally got a needed break to recharge. With the lack of a break, it is a bit of a wonder how the Knights have largely avoided the injury bug. Coach Scott Frost and his staff deserve a lot of credit for adapting their practice regimen to their grueling schedule.
Key #2. Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson is going to need to be healthy: Kerryon Johnson has been battling a ribs and shoulders injuries this season. He’s not 100 percent, but the time off has certainly helped. With Kamryn Pettway still out, he’s going to have to be the man. Johnson won the SEC offensive player of the year despite not playing in every game this season.
Key #3. Buy the hype. Despite what the talking heads might think, this is a matchup both teams are taking seriously. UCF is the only undefeated team in the country and ranks as the highest scoring program this season. Auburn specializes in taking down undefeated teams after being previously undefeated Georgia and Alabama. Both teams just happened to be ranked 1st in the nation at the time too. The Tigers coaching staff has been on this stage before and knows that all eyes will be on them. It would be an insult to them and their program if Auburn was actually unmotivated to play.
Auburn HC Gus Malzahn on team motivation: “This is a very important game for us. Our guys understand that. It’s not only a chance to win our eleventh game, which we’ve done six times in school history but to finish this season off the right way.”
UCF HC Scott Frost on Auburn: “Auburn is a really good team. They have beat some teams that are some of the best in the country. They have played other teams that are in the playoff. This is one of the best teams in college football.”
UCF QB McKenzie Milton on the idea of finishing undefeated: “It would mean a lot. I mean, that’s the way you want to go out. It’s the way we want to leave our legacy here, this 2017 season.”
UCF OC Troy Walters on changing the mindset from playing every week to slowing it down: “We definitely want to give them time off, because when you go 11 straight weeks, it’s taxing, both physically and mentally, and we did that, and they were able to recover, refresh a little bit, and now, you know, we’re healthy and ready to go.
UCF OL Wyatt Miller on maintaining health through such a grueling season: “The coaches have done a really good job all season of taking care of our bodies and if that means switching up practice–after practice Coach Duval requires us to get in the cold tub, and the cold tub has been extremely cold this week.” For the record, while the game will be played indoors at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the weather will be right around the freezing point outside.
Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson on using this game to make a statement: “This is a big game for us. I know, obviously, my last two years here, we never won anywhere close to how many games we have won right now. I can’t remember the last time Auburn won this many games and we will be one of the few teams to do it if we win, so this game is huge for us. We are taking it very seriously.”
Funny quote moment from Auburn DC Kevin Steele when asked about grading his team: “We don’t give letter grades. Bottom line is, flunk English class on campus, they get rid of the student. You flunk our class, they get rid of the coach.”
Funny quote moment from UCF LB Shaquem Griffin talking about coach Barrett Ruud: “You know you have some coaches who would yell at you. He’ll just be sarcastic with you. He’d be ‘oh, so you think you did good on that play huh?’ They’d be like ‘I did’ and he’d be like ‘no, you didn’t.’”
I've been writing off and on since 2003, where I first wrote for Southern College Sports. After a hiatus, I returned in 2012 with The Sports Chronicles, a predecessor of NGSC Sports. After a brief stint with WBLZ in 2017, I have returned to NGSC Sports. Also, from 2015 to 2017, I helped run Off the Cuff, a sports program and blog with STLR Media.
I have done radio and podcasts dating back to 2006 with The Student of the Game, an NFL podcast. In 2012, I cohosted TSC Saturday Night on the Sports Chronicles and The OT With Andrew G on WTMY in Sarasota, FL. I later moved the OT to NGSC Sports until 2014 where I started The College Cram, also on NGSC Sports. After a brief hiatus, I returned to radio in 2015 with both Off the Cuff on STLR and The Mad Scientist Sports Lab on The Inscriber.