It’s not difficult to see why UCF would be motivated heading into next month’s Peach Bowl.
The Knights are the nation’s last remaining undefeated team, and while the American Athletic Conference champions were never seriously considered a College Football Playoff contender despite athletics director Danny White’s pleas, their Jan. 1 game against Auburn gives them their first shot this season to prove their worth against a Power 5 team on a national stage.
It’s also the last time UCF’s players will get to play for coach Scott Frost, who took the head job at his alma matter Nebraska on Dec. 2 but will coach the Knights at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“You can tell they have unbelievable respect for him and you could see that after the game. It was really impressive to see the way his team responded to him when he told them the news,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I know they’re going to be playing for their coach and their staff coming out and for their team. We’re expecting their best, but I’m sure they’ll be locked in.”
Finding reasons for Auburn to be motivated is not as cut and dry. The last time the Tigers played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the did so with the SEC Championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff on the line.
They’re still in a New Years Six bowl for the second straight year despite that 28-7 loss to Georgia, but their game on Jan. 1 will be just an appetizer for the two playoff semifinals scheduled to kick off later that evening. Auburn faced all four of the playoff teams — Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama — this calendar year, going 2-3 against them.
Still, there are things to play for. Malzahn pointed to sending out the team’s 19 seniors the right way as one and building momentum for the 2018 season as another. The rallying cry, though, might be the quest for 11 wins.
It’s a height Auburn has only reached six times in program history, the first of which came in 1983. The Tigers matched that total in 1993 and 2006 and exceeded it in 2004, 2010 and 2013, winning 13, 14, and 12 games in those seasons, respectively.
Malzahn has been the coach or offensive coordinator during two of those seasons. He could add a third overall and second as a head coach if the 10-3 Tigers can beat UCF on Jan. 1. No other coach has led more than one such campaign on the Plains, though that comes with the caveat that Auburn played primarily 10-game seasons until the 1960s.
“That is going to be one of our goals. Our players are excited about that,” he said. “The tradition we have here at Auburn is the best in the country and it’s only been done six times. This will be a team that, if we can pull of the 11th win, will be remembered and talked about a long time around here.”
It would be remembered not only for the final number, but also how it got three of the last four wins. UCF is the third undefeated team Auburn has faced over its last five games. The Tigers won the first two, defeating 9-0 Georgia 40-17 on Nov. 11 and 11-0 Alabama 26-14 on Nov. 25.
The Knights are a far different type of team than the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide, for more than obvious reasons. They don’t play as much defense — they rank 53rd nationally allowing more than 25 points per game — but no team in the nation has scored more than their 49.4 per game. Quarterback McKenzie Milton has helped lead them to at least 31 points in every game they have played.
UCF has also won close games, with three of its last five victories coming by single digits. It’s something that has impressed Malzahn, whose own team is 0-2 in gamed decided by single digits this season.
But the Tigers are also 10-1 in games decided by double-digits — one away from the 11th win they’ll be looking for on Jan. 1.
“They’re an outstanding team. They’ve got a lot of momentum coming into this bowl,” Malzahn said of UCF. “Offensively, they’re the top offense in the country statistically. They’ve got a quarterback that’s phenomenal. It’s going to be a good one. I know our players and our coaches are looking forward to it.”