Less than 24 hours after the announcement was made that UCF would square off against LSU in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Sports Illustrated ranked the matchup as the most anticipated game of this year’s bowl season.

Of everyone who is looking forward to the New Year’s Day game, UCF linebacker Nate Evans, defensive lineman Brendon Hayes and offensive lineman Bailey Granier are probably at the top of that list.

The three are the only Knights on roster who grew up in Louisiana.

“My initial reaction when the bowl game was announced was, ‘It’s time to go.’ This is what I dreamed of — playing on the big stage, playing LSU, all my loved ones and friends watching,” Evans says. “That is the team in Louisiana.”

“This is what I dreamed of — playing on the big stage, playing LSU, all my loved ones and friends watching.” — Brendon Hayes, UCF defensive lineman

Evans was ranked among the state’s top 50 recruits by Rivals when he signed to play at UCF in 2016. While in high school, he went up against the Tigers’ starting linebackers Devin White and Michael Divinity Jr. and trained regularly with cornerback Kristian Fulton.

He also played against his now UCF teammate Hayes in the 2014 LHSAA Division I state playoffs. Both raised in the New Orleans area, Evans was the star linebacker for the storied program John Curtis (which claims 27 state championships to date) while Hayes was an all-district selection for Brother Martin.

“His team beat us by two touchdowns to get to the Super Dome. He holds that over my head every day,” Hayes says with Evans in earshot.

Evans responds: “I’m sorry, B. Hayes. I’m sorry, Brother Martin. But John Curtis all the way. We handed it to them.”

As all-conference honorees for the Knights this year, the two say they are looking forward to teaming up together this time to show their state what UCF Football is all about.

While they are focused on coming out with a win, they also plan to soak up this special moment for themselves and their home state. Hayes says he hopes to take a picture with all the Bayou-bred players on the field after the game clock hits zero.

“We’ll have that picture forever. It’s going to be a good representation of what New Orleans and what the state of Louisiana bring to the game of football,” Hayes says.

One Knight’s SEC Connection

Granier is looking forward to the game, as well, because even though he played in the SEC from 2014-17 at Vanderbilt before transferring to UCF this season, the Commodores never crossed paths with LSU during that span.

“It’s super ironic that I went somewhere else and now I’ll end up playing them in a huge bowl game,” he says. “The goal is to win one more game — my last game of college football. I’m excited, nervous, scared and sad all at the same time about it.”

“If I’m comparing it to what I’ve experienced, I think this team is built like an SEC team.” — Bailey Granier, UCF offensive lineman

Granier is from Galliano, Louisiana, where he was the captain of the football team at South Lafourche High School. It’s the same high school that proudly claims LSU coach Ed Orgeron as a graduate. Orgeron led the 1977 football squad to a state championship as both an offensive and defensive lineman.

In his hometown of 7,350 people, Orgeron is something of a legend. His high school jersey number was retired on “Coach O Day” on Feb. 17, 2017, which Granier’s parents attended.

“He knows where he came from, which is a really good thing,” Granier says of Orgeron. “I think that’s why he’s so passionate about coaching at LSU.”

Granier says he exchanged several messages with people from back home in the days that followed the announcement of the Fiesta Bowl matchup. Some were kind. Some were funny. Others talked smack.

Rather than responding, Granier — along with Hayes and Evans — intends to let UCF’s performance on the field speak for itself.

“I played in the SEC for four years. I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to play against those teams,” Granier says. “If I’m comparing it to what I’ve experienced, I think this team is built like an SEC team.”