Nobody took advantage of conference realignment this season quite like the Central Florida Knights. Just one season removed from Conference USA, UCF took full advantage of the automatic bid afforded to the champion of the AAC in 2013 to punch their ticket to the program’s first BCS bowl. The Knights’ will cash in on a big pay day in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on January 1 where they will face off against the high-powered Baylor Bears. If UCF hopes to stay competitive in this one, they will need a huge performance from their defense against the run.
Baylor leads the nation in scoring this season thanks in part to a dynamic running game that can run circles around a defense between the tackles or around the edge. Baylor ranked No. 12 in rushing offense this season, averaging 264.5 yards per game and scoring 43 rushing touchdowns on the year(fourth-highest total in the country). That running game keyed their explosive passing attack, opening up the deep ball for quarterback Bryce Petty off play-action, and he capitalized throwing for 3,844 yards with 30 touchdowns and two interceptions on the year.
They were no one-trick pony, either, as three running backs split time in the backfield, each getting over 100 carries this season and enjoying huge success. Lache Seastrunk led the way with 141 carries for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns. Behind him, Shock Linwood stepped up, carrying the ball 125 times for 862 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. Then there was Glasco Martin who stepped up in some major spots this season and carried the ball 114 times for 490 yards and six touchdowns. That doesn’t even include Petty’s contributions to the running game off the read-option and scrambles where he ran for 192 yards and 11 touchdowns.
That’s a lot to keep track of for UCF which has had some success against the run this season. The Knights rank No. 13 in the nation in rush defense, allowing just 116.5 yards per game this year and 1.4 touchdowns per game. Some of that success, however, may be attributed to a weak AAC schedule that struggles to run the ball. Only two opponents of UCF this season rank inside the top-80 for rushing offenses. Those two, the Penn State Nittany Lions (No. 59) and South Carolina Gamecocks (No. 29), found success against the Knights on the ground, rushing for 193 and 225 yards, respectively, and combining for seven touchdowns.
Baylor is on another level from anyone that UCF has seen this season offensively. The key to their high-octane offense is their ability to run the football. If Central Florida has any ideas about slowing down the Bears this bowl season, they must disrupt that running game. To do that, they’ll need an out-of-this-world performance from their defense which they may not be capable of delivering.