GLENDALE, Arizona – There is a fiesta of motivations on tap for both combatants at the Fiesta Bowl, which kicks off at noon Tuesday on ESPN between No. 8 Central Florida (12-0) and No. 11 LSU (9-3) at State Farm Stadium.
Central Florida, which goes by UCF, has won 25 straight games, but is still working on branding that name and its second tier American Athletic Conference as it has been shut out of the College Football Playoff final four for the second straight year despite and undefeated season.
“It’s kind of frustrating when you don’t get a lot of recognition or whatever like that,” UCF sophomore safety Richie Grant said Sunday at bowl media day. “We don’t think about hat too much because all it will do is bring you down. We’re as positive as we can be. But I do feel like that. I just feel like games like these are big for this program, UCF as a whole – not just the football team. We’re trying to solidify our program and our conference in college football history.”
UCF beat No. 7 Auburn of the Southeastern Conference in the Peach Bowl last season to finish 13-0, but apparently not enough respect was earned.
“I just say the SEC has a brand, but we have our brand also, so we’re going to do what we have to do,” Grant said.
“Yeah, every game we’re out to prove something,” UCF sophomore wide receiver Gabriel Davis said.
“I think we for sure have something to prove,” UCF senior defensive tackle Joey Connors said. “It doesn’t matter what conference you play in, no matter who we’re playing, we have to go out and treat it like the biggest game of our career.”
Unlike Auburn, which settled for the Peach Bowl after losing the SEC Championship Game last year to miss out on the CFP final four, LSU sees the Fiesta Bowl as a step up. It is the Tigers’ first-ever “New Year’s Six” Bowl, a designation that began with the CFP final four in 2014. The Tigers can also win 10 games in a season for the first time since 2013 when it finished 10-3 with a win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
“We’re fortunate to be in this bowl,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Monday at a press conference. “It is a reward for a great season. You can’t get in a New Year’s Day Six Bowl without having a great season. So, winning 10 games, winning the Fiesta Bowl – our first New Year’s Six Bowl, will say a lot about our program taking the next step.”
LSU could also become the first team to beat UCF since Dec. 17, 2016, when Arkansas State beat the Knights, 31-13, in the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida.
“It plays a part in a player in bowls – being motivated,” LSU junior linebacker and Butkus Award winner Devin White said. “I’m not going to say Auburn wasn’t motivated, but I feel like they went through a tough stretch as far as SEC games (No. 2 Georgia, No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 Georgia in four weeks before the bowl). That’s not an easy stretch. My team is going to be motivated, and my team is going to be ready to get a win.”
UCF, meanwhile, could stage its own national championship parade for the second straight year if it finishes undefeated again. First-year coach Josh Heupel downplayed that, though.
“It’s just the next opportunity for us,” he said. “We’ve had a mantra of playing the next game. We’re looking forward to the opportunity of this one to give ourselves a chance to go 1-0 one more time.”
The 26th time.
“They call themselves the national champs, and I can’t blame them,” LSU junior defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “They’re a hell of a team. It’s definitely a pride thing. We definitely want to shut them down. We want to play our type of football – not only SEC football and everything, but LSU defense, and have a really dominant game.”
In this “Backup Bowl,” that LSU defense will be without four starters at kickoff – All-American cornerback Andraez “Greedy” Williams (skipping bowl, entering NFL Draft) cornerback Kristian Fulton (ankle injury), nose tackle Ed Alexander (skipping bowl, entering NFL Draft) and linebacker Jacob Phillips (out first half for targeting in LSU’s last game).
Sophomore Kary Vincent Jr. and senior transfer Terrence Alexander will start at the cornerback slots against UCF’s up tempo attack with redshirt freshman Tyler Shelvin at nose tackle and possibly true freshman Micah Baskerville at linebacker for a half for Phillips. Or LSU could start just three linebackers with sophomore Patrick Queen replacing Phillips.
“Those guys are going to have to perform,” Orgeron said. “And the high rate of speed that UCF runs plays, we’re going to have to alternate our guys. So there will be some guys who haven’t played before that are going to have to step up. It doesn’t matter who’s under the helmet, they have to perform just like the other guys have to perform. So, it’s going to be a test for some of our guys.”
UCF, meanwhile, will be without starting junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, who suffered a knee injury on Nov. 23 in a 38-10 win over South Florida and is 10th in the nation in passing efficiency at 161.0 (171 of 289, 2,663 yards, 25 TDS, 6 INTs). Redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr. is his replacement and has completed 40 of 70 passes for 522 yards and two touchdowns in nine games while rushing for 340 yards and six touchdowns on 58 rushes.
Mack completed 19 of 27 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 59 yards and four touchdowns in UCF’s 56-41 win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Dec. 1.
“He’s hard to tackle,” Orgeron said. “It’s kind of like playing a wildcat formation every play.”
UCF is 25-0 to LSU’s 18-7 over the last two years, but it is a touchdown underdog, which sounded like more motivation to UCF’s Davis.
“We take that mentality,” he said. “But I feel like we’re two evenly matched teams. We’ll see what happens on the 1st.”