The date had been circled all season as the Group of Five conferences' game of the year. The game itself proved to be one of the most exciting college football games of the year, period.
No. 15 UCF beat South Florida 49-42 in the War on I-4 rivalry on Friday in Orlando. UCF's victory allowed it to move to a perfect 11-0 in the regular season, win the American Athletic Conference's East Division title and set the stage for a battle with Memphis in the conference championship game. Win that, and UCF is a lock to earn a New Year's Six bowl bid.
The Knights got all they could handle from the Bulls, who entered this season as the far more hyped team, widely expected to pursue an unbeaten record and a major bowl under first-year coach Charlie Strong. Although South Florida has been good -- it entered the game with a 9-1 record -- it's been overshadowed and often outplayed by the Knights all season. South Florida played what might have been its best game on Friday, but it still wasn't enough to end the Knights' run toward perfection.
The game was entertaining from start to finish, but the most drama was saved for the final half-quarter. After going down by six, McKenzie Milton connected with Dredrick Snelson for a 45-yard touchdown to put UCF back ahead by a point with 7:33 left. South Florida punted, and UCF went 80 yards in six plays, with a gorgeous 23-yard screen pass from Milton to Otis Anderson pushing the Knights ahead by eight with 2:21 left. T
The immediate reaction was that UCF scored too fast instead of running out the clock, and the Bulls made the Knights pay: Quinton Flowers hit an 83-yard bomb to Darnell Salomon against a coverage bust for a touchdown. With a two-point conversation, the Bulls tied the game at 42 … with 1:41 still left. UCF wasted no time responding: Mike Hughes took the ensuing kickoff back 95 yards for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, the game's third TD in less than a minute.
CFB game of the year?- ESPN (@espn) November 25, 2017
With a division title on the line, UCF kept its perfect season alive with a bonkers 49-42 win over rival South Florida that included 3 TDs in 53 seconds. pic.twitter.com/LwPJToqgir
South Florida still had plenty of time to answer, but on its third play, Flowers connected with Mitchell Wilcox, who had the ball poked loose by Richie Grant and recovered by the Knights, sealing the UCF victory.
UCF hadn't been tested like this all season, as it hadn't allowed more than 24 points to any AAC opponent. But the South Florida offense that was expected in the preseason showed up in the AAC's game of the year: Flowers went 24 of 45 for 503 yards and four TDs as a passer and rushed 20 times for 102 yards and a TD, giving him 605 yards of total offense. Tyre McCants had 227 receiving yards, and Salomon added 139. And yet the 653 total yards, 7.8 yards per play and 42 points still weren't enough to spoil UCF's perfect season.
Good luck stopping Quinton Flowers.- ESPN (@espn) November 24, 2017
He's got nearly 500 total yards as South Florida and UCF are battling for a division crown in a wild one on ABC. pic.twitter.com/Z00e7QN8m8
Milton, who made an enormous leap from his freshman year to sophomore year, threw for 373 yards and four TDs and rushed for 56 yards. South Florida actually held UCF to only seven points in the middle two quarters, allowing it to take that six-point lead, but the Knights scored 21 points in the first quarter and stormed back with 21 points in the final eight minutes, coming up with the plays they needed to beat their rivals in front of a raucous home atmosphere.
It's been a whirlwind half-decade for UCF, which won the Fiesta Bowl in 2013, went 0-12 in 2015 and is now 11-0 in 2017, the second season under rising star coach Scott Frost. The swift turnaround has made Frost a hot coaching candidate elsewhere -- especially Florida and Nebraska -- but those rumors are going to have to be put on hold.
Next week, UCF will host Memphis, which it already beat by 27, in the AAC title game. The playoff appears to be out of reach, but win that, and the Knights will return to a major bowl.
There's still work to be done to finish off what's been a dream year for UCF football. But the team that couldn't win two years ago has become the team that can't lose, and the game that had been circled lived up to the hype and then some.
South Florida was expected to be the undefeated AAC team vying for a major bowl bid, but UCF fanned the rivalry flames and claimed that status for itself.