|UCF, USF play for AAC title-game berth|
Central Florida and South Florida have played eight times in what is billed as the "War on I-4" -- a reference to the interstate highway that links the schools' campuses in Orlando and Tampa, respectively -- but none had the impact or buildup that goes with this week's matchup.
The undefeated Knights (10-0, 7-0 American Athletic Conference) and once-beaten Bulls (9-1, 6-1 AAC) will play Friday afternoon in Orlando for a certain spot in the conference championship game against Memphis and a possible berth in a New Year's Six bowl game as the representative from the Group of Five conferences.
The Knights were No. 15 in last week's College Football Playoff rankings ahead of Memphis at No. 21 and No. 25 Boise State of the Mountain West.
USF did not make the Top 25 of the CFP rankings but was No. 22 in the media poll and No. 19 in the coaches' poll to UCF's 13/12, respectively. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the CFP rankings are the ones that matter, and a 28-24 loss to Houston on Oct. 28 knocked them out of that.
Oh, yeah. These two teams do not exactly like each other. USF resisted even agreeing to the series that would have matched up the two young programs in the 1990s.
The Bulls have dominated the series since it was initiated in 2005, winning the first four matchups and six of eight, with last year's victory adding to the rivalry's fire. The Bulls pushed across a late touchdown to expand a 10-point cushion to a 48-31 final after the Knights turned the ball over on downs in the final two minutes.
UCF coach Scott Frost, who got the Knights into a bowl game last year after inheriting a winless team, clearly remembers that, but he said revenge won't be a factor this week.
He seemed more upset by a scheduling quirk that has his team coming off a Saturday trip to Temple and going into a Friday afternoon game while the Bulls last played on Thursday night.
"It's unfortunate the conference gave us a short week and gave them a couple extra days," Frost said. "I don't agree with that at all, especially with a game of this magnitude. I hope that doesn't happen to a team again.
"That being said, we're going to do all the work we need to get ready, and I'm sure our kids will have no problem getting motivated."
Though both teams are the leaders in the conference in two key areas -- USF is No. 1 in both scoring defense (19.9 points per game) and total defense (323.5 yards) and UCF is No. 2 in both categories (20.5 points 373.6 yards), the game sets up for an offensive show led by two top quarterbacks.
UCF's McKenzie Milton is the AAC's total offense leader, running and passing for 330.1 yards a game, 292.8 through the air.
"He's having an unbelievable year," first-year USF coach Charlie Strong said. "His numbers are astounding. You look at him and he does a great job of directing the offense. He places the ball in the right place.
"The thing about him is when you try to rush him, he gets the ball out, and if you don't rush him, you better get ready because he can find the open receivers.
"Our hands are going to be full. We know the type of player he is and the type of year he is having. We're going to have to play our best."
USF's Quinton Flowers ranks in sixth in the AAC in both rushing (87.0 yards per game) and passing (209.7).
"He's a special player," Frost said. "He has been since he came on the scene a couple years ago. He's the type of guy that makes big plays all over the place. You can feel like you're controlling and stopping him and he can make a big play at any time. He's dynamic.
"We really have to attack him. We have to make sure we are closing the distance on him and not let him making any long runs. And we've got to be sound in coverage so he doesn't hit a big pass.
"It's going to be a challenge, and our guys are fired up about it."
It is, quite simply, Strong said, "the game that everyone has been waiting for."