The 2017 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl had the opportunity to be many things. It could’ve been an SEC-fueled blowout, a four-hour infomercial for the Nebraska football program or even an indictment on Scott Frost’s choice to fill two head coaching roles and bring his staff along for the ride.
It was none of those things.
Those who wanted the Central Florida Knights to have their time in the spotlight got their wish. What’s more, they got to see that Frost’s 2017 squad wasn’t a fluke and could not only go blow-for-blow with an elite program, it could beat one. The contest was highly entertaining in and of itself, but while it should leave UCF fans encouraged about what Josh Heupel can do moving forward, it should also serve as an exciting glimpse into what could be for Frost’s new team.
Five things stood out the most from UCF’s 34-27 win over No. 7 Auburn:
1.) The UCF Staff is Highly Prepared – According to an article by Steve Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star, Frost and his staff were truly going to give the Peach Bowl all of the attention it deserved. UCF defender Shaquem Griffin noted that before the first practice, thick scouting reports were handed out.
“They didn’t have to do that, but it just goes to show how much they were there for us,” Griffin said. “If you give us a full packet on Auburn before we even start practicing, you mean business.”
Star quarterback McKenzie Milton also chimed in regarding the staff’s efforts. “They would be out till the wee hours of the night recruiting for Nebraska and then still coming to practice at 7 or 8 a.m. to help us game-plan.”
This is hardly surprising. After all, Frost took a trip across the country from Orlando to Fresno, Calif. to visit hotshot quarterback and now-Husker signee Adrian Martinez. Not only that, but the new staff secured the signatures of some of the nation’s top JUCO prospects such as running back Greg Bell, wide receiver Jaron Woodyard and linebacker Will Honas.
Now that the Knights are 13-0 and dismissed a team that defeated the two participants of this year’s National Championship game, Frost and Co. can focus on locking down what is already shaping up to be an impressive transition class.
2.) Scott Frost Is a Remarkable Playcaller – In what will come as a shock to no one, Frost calls his own shots when it comes to how his offense rolls. Admittedly, it helps when you have a quarterback with the athleticism of Milton. While there appeared to be some initial tightness and perhaps early jitters by UCF, the Knights’ defense kept a usually efficient Auburn offense in check.
Following a first quarter that saw UCF up 13-6, Auburn would score 14 straight points setting up a critical series for UCF’s morale. The Knights probed the Auburn defense early with the running game before Milton hit three different receivers during a seven play, 65-yard touchdown drive. They would score again on an eight play, 59-yard drive that followed an Auburn punt.
Not only did Frost’s calls keep Auburn at arm’s length, he put his players in a position to succeed. Milton is the perfect example. He began the game looking like he couldn’t hit the ocean, let alone the broad side of a barn. He finished the game 16-of-35 for 242 yards and two touchdowns. But that’s not all. He also ran for 116 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Everyone in the Nebraska quarterback room should feel ecstatic.
3.) Erik Chinander Can Develop An Elite Defense – You may ask how a defense that finished the season ranked 95th overall in total defense and 52nd in scoring defense can be called “elite” by anyone with a straight face. While UCF did surrender 25 points per game, one has to keep in mind how Frost’s offense operates. Tempo is the name of the game. Lots of scoring, all of it. The Knights were too busy lighting up the scoreboard, averaging 48 points per contest this past season.
We must look closer to determine just how well Chinander’s defense played in 2017. Using more complex metrics to look at actual defensive efficiency, we get a clearer picture.
For example, did you know that when UCF was 11-0, only two teams were better at forcing an opponent’s offense into a turnover?
When taking things such as the number of offensive drives that result in a touchdown, total yards surrendered divided by yards available to be earned and various other metrics (which you can go into here because it’s pretty in depth), the Knights actually trotted out the equivalent of a top 20 defense. Even following their loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, Auburn was ranked No. 3. You can apply that to my second point today if you want.
Interestingly enough, using these same metrics, UCF touted a top ten defense during Frost’s first year, a 5-7 effort. To simplify things, while Frost’s offense may score points by the bushel causing his team’s defense to get back on the field more often, they don’t tend to stay out there for long, sustained drives.
In 2017, UCF tied for second overall with 20 interceptions and tied for 13th overall when recovering fumbles, snagging 12 when opponents coughed up 17. 71 percent of the time, if you put the ball on the dirt, the Knights snatched it away.
During that 2016 campaign, Central Florida “only” tied for 22nd overall in interceptions with 15 and tied for 24th when it came to fumble recoveries, taking advantage of 11 opportunities presented to them out of 24 offered.
Finally, let’s examine the Peach Bowl itself. UCF tallied five sacks against Auburn. The Knights also held the Tigers to 90 yards rushing on 44 attempts. By contrast, Nebraska had 14 sacks in all of 2017 and the best job the Blackshirts did of stopping an opponent’s run game was holding an eventual 4-8 Rutgers team to 68 yards rushing on 24 tries. Pretty rank.
Here’s the good news: Nebraska does have defensive talent and will be getting a quick injection thanks to this recruiting class. Will Chinander have the Blackshirts humming as quickly as he did the Knights? Maybe. However, one thing’s for sure: UCF looked to be excited as they swarmed to the football. That’d be a good start.
4.) Zach Duval Should Pay Immediate Dividends – You can look to the time Milton had to throw in the pocket, how his offensive line caused the front four of Auburn to part or the aforementioned stonewalling of the Tiger rushing effort. Talk about Shaquem Griffin or Adrian Killins or simply how UCF wasn’t sucking wind.
Thank new head football strength & conditioning coach Zach Duval for that. A 1998 Nebraska alum, Duval will be bringing a brand of stamina-increasing science that turned an 0-12 team that didn’t believe it could win into football players that not only believed they could tussle with one of the SEC’s finest, but they could out-muscle, out-run and out-perform them. They were ready for five quarters and then some.
It’s been very disappointing to see hands on the hips of Nebraska big men in recent years and that absolutely won’t be acceptable for the new Head of Husker Power.
5.) “Fit” Matters Up and Down the Totem Pole – I’m currently reading a book called The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football. It’s a fantastic read, I strongly recommend it. There are two chapters about current Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos and how he found himself working to rebuild the Washington State football program. Much as he made apparent during the search for the Huskers’ new head man, “fit” was key for WSU.
He needed a coach who could put butts in the seats and entertain while working to build something from practically nothing. Enter Mike Leach, college football’s most unique coach.
The Cougars had a bumpy start with only 12 wins to their name through three seasons, but Leach added an additional 26 over the next three.
Whether you’re Moos, Scott Frost and his staff, a roster full of players or even the support staff, the puzzle pieces appear to be finally settling into place in Lincoln. Modern-day college football doesn’t allow the Rube Goldberg machine programs to win. Moos saw the key to nixing that problem once and I can’t help but think he saw it again. Frost sees no reason to mess with success in terms of his staff and, well, the resume’s there. It’s hard to argue.
Nebraska football fans feel an energy that’s palpable across the college football landscape for the first time in a long time and that’s not by coincidence. Instead of hope, Frost brought what would work to UCF. Now he’s bringing what’s he’s proven can work to Nebraska.
Husker fans wanted Frank Solich to succeed, didn’t feel comfortable with Bill Callahan, eventually soured on Bo Pelini’s attitude and couldn’t come to terms with Mike Riley. 20 years removed from Tom Osborne’s retirement, it feels like having his quarterback calling the shots again is just…right.