Not only is Saturday’s showdown between UCF and SMU a rematch of last December’s Conference USA championship game; it could also serve as a preview of another championship collision between the East and West Division powers this December.
Knowing that they could very well see SMU again in the C-USA title game has ramped up the intensity for UCF as Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. nationally televised game approaches. Veteran head coach George O’Leary tries to treat every game on the schedule the same, but even he admits that this week’s contest has a special edge to it because of the quality of the opponent.
“I’ve seen more kids studying tape and watching film of any week past, and now we just need to go out and execute in the game,” O’Leary said. “Any time you are playing a team that you played in the conference championship game you would think it brings more reality to it. Our kids know SMU is a very good football team and it’s just about us going out now and doing what we’re supposed to do.”
What UCF (3-2 overall and 1-0 in C-USA play) is supposed to do is compete once again for the C-USA championship that it won last season. The Knights sent a message to the rest of the conference last week that they are still the team to beat with a 16-6 whipping of Marshall. But up next is SMU (4-1 and 1-0), a team that the Knights expect to be among their top competition between themselves and another league title.
“Oh, this is the game for us and the challenge that we’ve all been wanting,” UCF senior defensive end Darius Nall said. “This will be the best offense that we’ve seen so far, so it’s up to us now to be up for the challenge. This will be a game where we can prove ourselves one way or another on Saturday.”
At the crux of this showdown is a classic matchup between UCF’s nationally ranked defense and a SMU offense that might be as talented and diverse as any the Knights will see this season. UCF’s defense has given up just three touchdowns all season, and two of those scores came after muffed punts inside the 10-yard line. Also, the Knights have not given up a passing touchdown in 369 minutes of game action, a streak that dates back to the fourth quarter of last December’s game against SMU.
UCF is ranked first in the nation in pass defense (100.2 yards a game), second in total defense (177.6 yards per game), second in points allowed per game (10 ppg.) and eighth in run defense (77.4 ypg.).
Conversely, SMU has the nation’s 12th best passing attack (326.8 yards per game) while also averaging 122.6 rush yards a game. J.J. McDermott has replaced Kyle Padron at quarterback and has thrown for 1,482 yards and eight TDs compared to just four interceptions. Meanwhile, tailback Zach Line leads all C-USA rushers 583 yards and 11 TDs on the ground.
The Mustangs lost their opener to Texas A&M, but have since won four-consecutive games. They beat UTEP and Memphis in C-USA play and upset No. 20 TCU, 40-33, in overtime two weeks ago. SMU plays in Houston on Nov. 19 in a game that very well could decide the West Division champion.
“They talk about their defense as being seven seconds of violence and they have a lot of fifth-year players on their team,” O’Leary said. “Their quarterback is very accurate and they have the leading rusher in the conference. They have good size and it’s the best passing attack that we will see all season.”
UCF standout cornerback Josh Robinson, who has lived up to his preseason All-America billing so far with two interceptions and seven pass breakups, remembers UCF’s defensive effort against SMU last December fondly. After a season in which quarterbacks mostly shied away from throwing to his side, Robinson picked off a pass and broke up two more against SMU. He knows that SMU’s offense will put the heat on UCF’s defense on Saturday.
“In the conference championship game, they had a lot of deep plays and crossing routes that they tried to do against us. I know that they are a team that’s going to test me again and I’m looking forward to it,” Robinson said. “We’ve just got to make sure they don’t (throw for a touchdown) this year. We can’t let them get in our end zone. We just have to try to do whatever it takes to stop them.”
Stop them, as the Knights have all season, and they know that they’ll likely beat SMU again and put themselves in even better position to potentially see the Mustangs again in a December championship rematch.