AUBURN, Ala. — According to Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn, there won’t be any overlooking UCF in the upcoming Peach Bowl.
Auburn will face UCF, the only undefeated team left in the FBS, on New Year’s Day in Atlanta. While Malzahn spoke highly of several areas about the Group of 5 Knights, he is most impressed with how Scott Frost’s teams pulled out close games late in the season.
“Really what stands out to me is their ability to win close games,” Malzahn said. “They won close games. When the pressure has been the highest, they found ways to win. An outstanding team. We know they’re going to be hungry. They’re the only undefeated team left out there so I think that says everything.”
After winning its first seven games of the season by double-digits, UCF pulled out single-digit victories in 3 of its final 5 games — including a 49-42 thriller against South Florida and a 62-55 shootout against Memphis in the AAC Championship Game.
Auburn, on the other hand, hasn’t won any close games in 2017. The Tigers lost the only two games decided by a single possession — at Clemson and at LSU — and won by 12 or more points in each of its 10 victories.
“This team’s undefeated and is playing very good and beating some good teams,” Malzahn said. “Their ability to win close games really stands out to me.”
UCF has been led this season by a pair of stars, quarterback McKenzie Milton and linebacker Shaquem Griffin.
Milton finished one spot ahead of Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson in Heisman Trophy voting Saturday after putting up more than 4,000 yards of total offense and 42 touchdowns in the regular season. He was the trigger man of Frost’s fast-paced offense, which ranks second nationally in yards per play and first in points per game.
“They’ve got a quarterback that’s phenomenal,” Malzahn said. “Offensively, they’re extremely talented. Very impressed with their quarterback. Their skill guys are really something. They have a lot of speed.”
Griffin, the one-handed linebacker who was named an All-American earlier this week, compiled 62 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 1 interception this season. Malzahn said he looked like an SEC-caliber linebacker on film.
“He’s right along those lines,” Malzahn said. “He’s got a great motor. He attacks the line of scrimmage. He attacks everything. He plays hard. He’s a good tackler. Good at rushing the passer, too. I mean, he’s a complete player.”
UCF will bring plenty of talent as the Group of 5 conferences’ representative to the Peach Bowl, but it will also bring a unique coaching situation as well.
Frost accepted the coaching job at his alma mater, Nebraska. He is currently splitting time between the Huskers and the Knights, who let him and his staff stay on to coach the Peach Bowl. Former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will replace Frost in the 2018 season.
“I think it’s probably pretty challenging right now because [Frost is] trying to balance the recruiting part of a new job,” Malzahn said. “But I think once the dead period gets here and he focuses in with his team, you can tell they have unbelievable respect for him and you could see that after the game. It was really impressive to see the way his team responded to him when he told them the news.
“We’re expecting their best. I know they’re going to be playing for their coach and their staff coming out and for their team. We’re expecting their best, but I’m sure they’ll be locked in.”