|Fiesta Bowl: UCF gets another shot at an SEC power|
Following a victory over SEC power Auburn in the Peach Bowl a year ago, unbeaten Central Florida threw its own national championship party after being snubbed by the College Football Playoff committee.
The No. 8 Knights are two-thirds of the way toward that same less-than-satisfying end again this season -- unbeaten and facing SEC power LSU in a major bowl after again being under-appreciated by a playoff selection committee that loves the Power Five schools.
"Anyone that's been involved in college football ... should understand how difficult it is to do what these individuals have done over the last 24 months," Knights first-year coach Josh Heupel said.
"It's extremely special. It's rare, the ability to stay focused on a weekly basis. To handle adversity. To continue to compete at an elite level, knowing that you're getting everybody's best shot. If you're involved in college athletics you understand how special this group of individuals is."
The Knights (12-0) will make their second appearance in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl after stretching their winning streak to 25 games by beating Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game behind redshirt freshman quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. It is the longest active winning streak in the FBS.
No. 11 LSU (9-3) will celebrate its 50th bowl game with its first appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, 38 days after a 74-72 seven-overtime loss to Texas A&M that tied the NCAA record for the longest game in FBS history.
Tigers running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and linebacker Jared Small are expected to play, coach Ed Orgeron said, after being involved in a fatal shooting in Baton Rouge, La., on Dec. 22.
One of the players is alleged to have shot a man who pulled a gun on the pair as they attempted to sell him an electronic device. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Baton Rouge police are "leaning toward calling it a 'justifiable shooting.'"
Edwards-Helaire has rushed for 626 yards and seven touchdowns, second on the team to Nick Brossette, who has rushed for 922 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Both quarterbacks enter the game on a roll. Mack, in his first career start in place of McKenzie Milton, accounted for 407 yards and six touchdowns in the 56-41 victory over Memphis. He had three rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including the one that gave the Knights their first lead, 42-41.
"Everybody knew in the back of our minds we were going to go out and win for '10,'" Mack said of Milton.
Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow was just as remarkable against Texas A&M, when he accounted for a school-record six touchdowns. Burrow passed for 270 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 100 yards and three more scores.
LSU enters with a resume that includes victories over No. 5 Georgia and No. 18 Mississippi State, and the Tigers also beat Auburn and Miami (Fla.) when each was ranked.
"We're playing as a team. Grit. Everybody together," Orgeron said.
Burrow, a transfer from Ohio State, completed 198 of 345 passes for 12 touchdowns and four interceptions and also rushed for 375 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season as a starter. He had 39 pass attempts in two seasons with the Buckeyes. Justin Jefferson caught 50 passes for 788 yards and four touchdowns.
Central Florida has victories over bowl-bound Pitt, then-No. 24 Cincinnati and Memphis twice. The Knights beat No. 6 Baylor 52-42 behind Blake Bortles in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl.
Halfback Greg McCrae had 206 of his season-high 1,101 rushing yards in the AAC title game against Memphis, when the Knights overcame deficits of 24-7 and 38-21. McCrae is averaging 9.0 yards per carry. Adrian Killins Jr. has 698 yards rushing and Gabriel Davis has caught 50 passes, one of the three Knights with a least 40 receptions.
Heupel, who replaced Scott Frost after Frost returned to his alma mater, Nebraska, following the 2017 season, received a contract extension through 2024 shortly after the bowl pairings were announced.
"They must have a great culture out there," Orgeron said. "Guys (who) believe in winning. They know how to practice. They know how to compete. The know how to win.
"I think they are one of the top teams in the country. They've proved it. This will be a challenge for our football team."
The Knights entered bowl season ranked third in FBS in total offense (545.4) and fifth in rushing offense (276.5) while averaging 44.2 points a game. LSU is giving up only 139.3 yards rushing per game and 3.8 per carry. However, Tigers star cornerback Greedy Williams will not play, opting to skip the bowl game and prepare for the NFL draft.
"They are going to be long and athletic," said Heupel, the 2000 Heisman Trophy runner-up as the quarterback at Oklahoma. "They're going to run really well. They're going to be powerful and explosive up front.
"They pose a lot of issues defensively. We recognize that we are playing a great opponent."
At the same time, the Knights seem up for another chance on the national stage.
"We played Auburn last year in a bowl game and came out with this 'W,'" Central Florida linebacker Nate Evans said.
"It's college football. Any team can be beat. I just feel like people need to know that. If you are doing good and you are successful at that time and have stats to show it off, I feel that should be recognized."