ATLANTA - Heading into the month of December, No. 7 Auburn picked up huge wins against both Georgia and Alabama in the Iron Bowl to put a statement on its stellar season. Having beat the Crimson Tide – their bitter SEC West rival – the Tigers (10-3) earned a highly anticipated rematch against UGA in the 2017 SEC Championship game, but the outcome was not the same as when the Bulldogs got their revenge over the Tigers, winning 28-7.
With the winner of the game claiming a spot in a College Football Playoff semifinal game, the Tigers were left out of the top four teams in what they had hoped would be another chance to play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a national championship on Jan. 8.
Instead, the Tigers will look to put their last performance inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium behind them -- one that featured banged up running back Kerryon Johnson and quarterback Jarrett Stidham under a lot of pressure – and get a win against an undefeated No. 12 UCF team in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day in their second trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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Auburn has never lost to UCF as the Tigers are 3-0 all-time and will play in their sixth Peach Bowl. The last time Auburn played in Peach Bowl was in 2011, when the Tigers defeated Virginia, 43-24.
Although not playing for all the marbles, the Tigers know that their match against the Knights will not be a cake walk by any means. In fact, according to ESPN Stats and Info, the Group of Five representative is 2-1 in New Year’s Six games against Power Five competition.
UCF, which was winless three seasons ago, is college football’s only unbeaten team and is in a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time. The Knights (12-0) feature a high-powered offense built to score points.
In case you were not aware, it took double-overtime and 62 points for UCF to defeat Memphis in the 2017 AAC Championship game on Dec 2. The final score of the game was 62-55.
With a conference championship, the Knights will look to implement their deadly offensive scheme against the Tigers to send off third-year head coach Scott Frost, who will be taking over as head coach of Nebraska next season.
UCF leads the nation in scoring per game, averaging 49 points per game and has not scored fewer than 31 points in a game this season. Much of the Knights' offensive firepower has come at the play of sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton, who has thrown for 3,795 yards, 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season and 45 touchdowns in his two-year span.
Milton also ranks fifth nationally in passing touchdowns, second in passing efficiency (185), second in completion percentage (69 percent) fifth in total offense (358 yards per game) and sixth in passing yards per completion (15.24). As a unit, the Knights average an eye-popping 540 yards of total offense per game. Two of Milton’s favorite targets are Tre’Quan Smith and Dredrick Snelson. Smith has recorded 1,082 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Snelson tallied 656 yards and seven touchdowns.
Those numbers, however, will be put to the test as UCF’s speed and quickness will be matched up against a stronger, physical SEC defense in Auburn, which enters the Peach Bowl ranked ninth in scoring defense, giving up just over 17 points per game.
Auburn never surrendered more than 28 points to its opponents this season and considering their schedule – the majority being SEC opponents and a 14-6 loss to a Clemson team that will be playing in a College Football Playoff semifinal game – the Tigers’ defense, on paper, seems equipped to slow down the Knights and will look to put a lot of pressure on Milton upfront.
While the attention of most of the Tigers will be centered on Milton, the Knights also feature running back Adrian Killins, who has rushed for 762 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Tigers will need to keep an eye on Killins as he has shown that he can make plays when needed for the Knights.
As a unit, Auburn enters the game ranked 13th in total defense, giving up 312 yards per game and 14th in pass defense (178 per game).
Auburn has the offense to match its defense behind the play of Stidham and SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson. Stidham has thrown for 2,827 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. These numbers are good for him being second in the SEC in passing yards and first in completion percentage. Combine his production with Johnson, who is now healthy and will look to add to his 1,320 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.
Not to mention, the Knights have allowed their opponents 429 yards of offense, with 263 coming through the air. Look for Tigers coach Gus Malzahn to get Stidham and Johnson going early on to “Kerry" the Tigers to victory.
While the game will be played on the field, the Knights could be in for a long day in stopping the Tigers rushing and passing attack. The X-factors of this game will be how well the Tigers’ defense puts pressure on Milton and disrupting the Knights' offense and whether the Knights’ defense has any answer for the Tigers’ offense.
The Tigers hope to make a final, positive statement about their season in the same stadium in which their postseason fate was determined.
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