The Definitive AutoNation Cure Bowl Preview: UCF Knights vs Arkansas State Red Wolves

Central Florida (6-6) v Arkansas State (7-5)

Saturday, December 17th, 4:30 CST at Camping World Stadium (Orlando, FL)

You Can Watch This Game On: The CBS Sports Network (Hmmmmmmm)

Wagering (except, you don’t wager, right?): -6.5 UCF, 36% FPI Arkansas State

Who wouldn’t want to pop into warm and sunny Orlando in December? It’s going to be about 70 degrees and Disney World is lit. Personally, I’m stoked about the matchup, even if, on the surface, this doesn’t look like a marquee game. To the untrained eye, it appears that a 7-5 Sun Belt team is playing a 6-6 American team at a low-stakes bowl. But this year’s AutoNation Cure Bowl is is defined by its nuance and layers.

Consider the UCF Knights, whose 6-6 record tells on the fraction of the story. UCF was winless in 2015! Now the program has a new and young head coach with something to prove. Arkansas State endured a bit of winless-ness itself, going 0-4 in out of conference play (1-7 the last two years). Defeating the Knights would go a long way to proving that the Red Wolves are more than Sun Belt wonders.

Nuances! The Cure Bowl has it.

The Knights in a nutshell

This isn’t your 2015, 0-12 UCF Knights. Nor is it your 2013, 12-1 UCF Knights. Nope, this is a team right there in the middle at 6-6, a third-place finisher in the AAC East. The Knights, under first year head coach Scott Frost, dialed up the defense and collected wins against the programs they’re supposed to defeat: FIU, UCONN, Tulane, Cincinnati, Eastern Carolina and FCS program South Carolina State. UCF wasn’t much of a match against Michigan (51-14 L), but they lost by only a score to Maryland (30-24) and Houston (31-24), before getting out-slugged at the end of the season by Tulsa and in-state rival USF.

The 0-12 debacle might have crushed lesser programs – heck it nearly crushed an Orlando small business. But Scott Frost’s leadership since taking over the reigns from George O’Leary/Danny Barrett proved to be just what the Knight’s needed to get back on the horse. While the team didn’t exactly light up scoreboards (a decent 30 points per game), the defense was a monster, especially in the red zone where it ranked a stifling 3rd in the nation. UCF finished a ho-hum third in the AAC East, but Frost will have the Knights in serious contention very soon.

Wrapping up the Wolves

The obituary for the 2016 Red Wolves will be a grim list of missed opportunities. Arkansas State had a chance to avenge their losses to Toledo by hosting the Rockets in Jonesboro, and they blew it. They laid an egg against Auburn, bungled a chance to defeat a mediocre Utah State team in Logan, and concluded their OOC schedule with a humiliating home loss to FCS in-state rival, Central Arkansas. Then, after having its way with the Sun Belt, the Red Wolves blew a chance at a second undisputed conference title by losing to longtime rival, Louisiana.

Still, the Red Wolves have won (or earned a share) of the conference 5 of the last six years, which is pretty impressive. Blake Anderson’s Red Wolves took a step backwards on offense (losing the starting QB, TE, RB and offensive coordinator will do that), but somehow got even better on defense. Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen’s squad delivered the second most Tackles For A Loss in the nation, behind only Michigan. These Red Wolves like to pour on the pressure, setting up what should be an amusing battle of defense in Orlando with an equally as talented Knight’s squad.

Statistically, the Knights and Red Wolves bare striking similarities

Never has two bowl teams been more evenly matched! (You won’t look up stats to disprove this statement, so just accept it.) The raw statistics point to a balanced contest. If anything, the outcome should reveal just how much separates the American from the Sun Belt.

Stat Category (2016) Red Wolves Knights
Total Offense 79th 107th
Rushing 102nd 96th
Passing 53rd 88th
Red Zone Offense 101st 14th
Off. 3rd Down Conv. 126th 123rd
Off. 4th Down Conv. 29th 89th
Total Defense 42nd 49th
Rushing Defense 49th 71st
Passing Yards Allowed 57th 30th
Def. 3rd Down Conv. 41st 7th
Sacks 12th 15th
TFL 2nd 13th
Red Zone Defense 38th 3rd

Big Difference: Yards per Game

Arkansas State and UCF are both fairly stingy about giving up points, with A-State allowing 22.2 per game and UCF 24.1. But the Knights surrender far fewer yards: 382. The Red Wolves’ “bend-don’t-break” defense yields 532 yards per game. This might be more a result of different defensive philosophies, as A-State’s Joe Cauthen is willing to give up big plays between the 20s to pressure the quarterback and create havoc.

The Red Zone will be a hot zone

This will be a game fought in the Red Zone. Unfortunately for the Red Wolves, the Red Zone is where the Knights hold their most significant statistical advantage. Arkansas State pits its 101st ranked red zone offense against UCF’s third ranked red zone defense. The red zone was the dead zone for Arkansas State’s most pivotal losses, especially against the Cajuns. Look for UCF defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and stud linebacker Shaquem Griffen to batten down the hatches when the Red Wolves draw close to the goal line.

Quarterbacks will eat a steady diet of turf

Erik Chinander’s defensive squad produces 7.7 Tackles for a Loss per game, best in the AAC and 13th best in the nation. Joe Cauthen’s crew is even better, generating 9.2 TFLs, the 2nd best rate in the nation. Both teams rank in the top 20 for total sacks, but the difference lies in where those sacks are coming from. UCF creates backfield chaos with its talented linebackers, Shaquem Griffen (11 sacks) and Errol Clarke (7 sacks). The Red Wolves receive their sack production from the defensive ends, Chris Odom (12.5 sacks) and Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (11 sacks). With so many sack maestros on the field, this Cure Bowl may become the stuff of nightmares for both starting quarterbacks.

Key Matchup 1: McKenzie Milton vs Justice Hansen

The signal callers for both teams share similar paths. UCF began the season with 6’4″ senior Justin Holman under center, but he injured his hamstring against Michigan. From there began a QB battle with freshman McKenzie Milton (5’11” 170lbs), a three-star dual threat QB who wound up winning the job starting with the November 15th game against Temple (a shocking, last-second 26-25 loss). Milton’s inexperience shows in his stat line (114.3 QB rating, 9 TDs, 7 INTs), but his legs creates an added layer to Scott Frost’s dynamic offense.

The Red Wolves started the season with 5th-year senior transfer from Pitt, Chad Voytik, whose experience and dual-threat capabilities appealed to A-State OC Buster Faulkner. However, a couple turnovers against Utah State led to a switch midway in week 3 to Justice Hansen, a 6’4″ sophomore transfer formerly of Oklahoma. Hansen has put up solid numbers, leading the Sun Belt in QB rating (137.9) while throwing for 2500 yards and 16 TDs.

Comp. Pass Yds TDs INTs Rating Rush Yds TDs Total TDs
J. Hansen 185/314 2,514 16 8 137.9 144 1 17
M. Milton 172/297 1,808 9 7 114.3 153 3 12

Looking at Hansen’s numbers, you’re inclined to believe him more a statuesque pocket passer. But he can run, and often does when a tough first down is desperately needed. Milton’s size implies that he’s more a scrambling threat. But he throws darts whether in the pocket or rolling out. The first QB to figure out the opposition’s tough defense will lead his team to victory.

Key Matchup 2: Shaquem Griffen vs Ja’Von Rolland-Jones

Griffen, a 6’1″ linebacker, is the 2016 AAC Defensive Player of the Year, leading the conference in sacks (11.0) and ranking third in the conference in tackles for loss (19.0). He also has an INT and a couple fumble recoveries, which makes him a true game changer.

Rolland-Jones, a 231lb defensive end, is the 2016 Sun Belt Overall Player of the Year who tied for first in tackles for loss (18.5) and tied for second in sacks in the Sun Belt (11.5). The Sun Belt’s sacks leader is Rolland-Jones’ teammate, fellow defensive end Chris Odom. Working in concert, the two are legitimate maestros of terror.

Key Matchup 3: Sun Belt vs American

You’ve seen the stats. Both teams are nearly identical on paper. This game should give college football fans a clear indication as to how close (or far apart) the talent is between the two conferences.

Key Matchup 4: Scott Frost vs Blake Anderson

Since the close of the regular season, college football in Florida has become a recruiting flashpoint, with Lane Kiffin and Charlie Strong joining a celebrity coaching cast that includes (but is not limited to) Butch Davis, Mark Richt, Jimbo Fisher and Jim McElwain. Scott Frost, manually hoisting a program that went winless just a season ago, is competing with a lot of star power in the state of Florida. Thumping the Red Wolves in central Florida is a sweet opportunity for Frost to give recruits a show.

For Blake Anderson, the stakes are also high. Since arriving to Jonesboro in 2014, the Red Wolves are a startling 3-14 in out-of-conference play (including 0-2 in bowl games). Despite earning a share of the Sun Belt championship this year, expectations for this team were greater. A win over a UCF team that won the freaking Fiesta Bowl just three years ago will go a long way to salvaging Anderson’s OOC reputation.

Secret Weapons

The Knights: Tre’Quan Smith, sophomore WR (6’1”, 200 lbs), is by far the Knight’s favorite receiving target with more than 20 receptions (54) than the next receiver.

The Red Wolves: Kendall Sanders, senior WR (6′, 187 lbs), is a reliable, hard-nosed transfer out of Texas looking for one last big game.

The Knights: Dontravious Wilson, senior RB (5’10” 210 lbs), is the Knights’ wrecking ball, with 9 total TDs, 8 on the ground.

The Red Wolves: Blake Mack, junior TE (6’3″ 231 lbs), bulked up to become a dynamic pass-catching TE with 585 yards and 3 TDs.

When last these titans met

A-State was beaten by "212 pounds of English."
A-State was beaten by “212 pounds of English.”

A year before Arkansas State made the painful leap from Division I–A to FBS, and five years before the Knights did the same, A-State and UCF met in Jonesboro for a dust-up. It wasn’t pretty for Arkansas State (see inset photo). An interesting piece of trivia: current Arkansas State Athletic Director Terry Mohajir played safety for that old Indians team. He likely thirsts for blood hot revenge!

Inventorying the Cure Bowl swag

It’s not the “thrill of competition” or the “opportunity to bring honor to the school” that drives bowl-bound athletes. It’s the swag! This year, UCF and Arkansas State student athletes can expect to receive:

  • A “sports watch”
  • warmup jacket and pants
  • portable charger
  • Dri-Fit long-sleeve shirt
  • backpack

Sweet! But how does that haul compare to, say, the goodies provided to Kentucky and Georgia Tech from the TaxSlayer Bowl?

  • Fossil watch
  • carry-on bag
  • Under Armour sunglasses
  • football
  • bobblehead with player’s face
  • name and uniform number

TaxSlayer bowl players get a personalized bobblehead? Why not just given them a bar of gold or a tropical island? That’s nuts and insane!

Traveler Check

Logistically speaking, the Knights have the advantage. The Red Wolves fly a robust 892 miles from Jonesboro to Orlando, truly testing Red Wolves fans’ penchant for travel. Meanwhile, the Knights travel all of 29 miles to Camping World Stadium, which isn’t much of a trip for the lads but should do wonders for UCF fan support.

Bowl for a cause

Your support fights breast cancer.

The Cure Bowl is a partner with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the nation’s highest rated breast cancer organization in the United States and the only organization committed exclusively to breast cancer research. “The AutoNation Cure Bowl is committed to providing a minimum donation of $150,000 from the proceeds of the game.” That’s cool. The website even offers you a way to donate.

Who’s gonna win the Cure?

Coach Blake Anderson is motivated to earn an out-of-conference win for the 2016 Red Wolves, taking away some of the bile left behind by lost opportunities against Toledo, Utah State and UCA. Meanwhile, Scott Frost is looking to end the Knights’ season on a positive note, hoping a win against the Sun Belt co-champions will reduce the sting of losing to Tulsa and USF to conclude the regular season. The Knights’ home field advantage will be difficult to overcome, but look for a recharged Anderson to lead a more experienced Red Wolves team to a narrow victory in Orlando.

 

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