Sports

ECU’s next opponent, Central Florida, is an underappreciated powerhouse

East Carolina quarterback quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against North Carolina on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
East Carolina quarterback quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against North Carolina on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Think back to the off-season. Imagine the team that Scott Frost coaches -- college football blue blood Nebraska – playing East Carolina at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

The drumbeat of anticipation would be deafening.

Central Florida, the upstart program from the American Athletic Conference program that Frost left behind, is visiting with a far better record than the unranked Cornhuskers.

The Knights (6-0, 3-0 AAC East) face the Pirates (2-4, 0-3 AAC East) at 7 p.m. Saturday before a national ESPN2 television audience.

UCF is riding a 19-game winning streak. They’re ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll and No. 9 in the USA Today voting. Blueblood or not, UCF is everything that Nebraska – 0-6 overall while suffering through 10-game losing streak – used to be.

But, like last year, the Knights are not fully appreciated as the powerhouse they are. UCF finished the 2017 regular season 12-0, but the Knights were only No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings and missed the four-team championship bracket. Once the bowls were over and UCF had beaten Auburn – the only team to defeat eventual national champion Alabama – in the Peach Bowl, the Knights climbed only two spots, to No. 12, in the final CFP rankings.

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall expressed frustration in a conference call that UCF’s lacks proper respect. His Huskies saw UCF’s up close, losing their opener to their AAC rival, 56-17.

“They should get all the credit they’re not getting,” Edsall said. “They talented and they’ve got a great quarterback. It’s disappointing to see things held against them.”

Edsall’s pointed out UCF was the only Top 10 AP team that won last week yet didn’t move up. With the exception of Alabama remaining No. 1, climbing one spot each were No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Notre Dame; No. 5 LSU moved up eight spots; No. 6 Michigan, six; No. 7 Texas, two; and No. 9 Oklahoma, two. LSU, Michigan and Oklahoma, leapfrogged the Knights.

This was despite UCF beating Pitt 45-14 on Sept. 22, while Pitt nearly upset Notre Dame last week before falling in South Bend, 19-14.

“People want to talk about conspiracies and things like that,” Edsall said. “I don’t understand how a team that has done what they (have) done -- hasn’t lost a game in two years -- stays in same place. They beat by 30 the same Power 5 team that Notre Dame only beat by five.”

UCF Memphis Football.JPG
Central Florida running back Adrian Killins Jr. (9) runs the ball against Memphis during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. Central Florida won 31-30. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski) Mark Zaleski AP

Junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, the 2017 AAC Offensive Player of the Year, was 17-of-29 for 296 yards with a game-winning touchdown run in the fourth quarter. He has 16 touchdown passes and six scores running this season.

Milton is on QB watch lists for the Davey O’Brien and Manning awards and for the Walter Camp as Player of the Year. Other watch list stars are senior Kyle Gibson on the Nagurski (defense) and Thorpe (defensive back); junior Tryston Hill on the Outland (interior lineman) and Nagurski; and senior Mac Loudermilk, Guy (punter).

“We got great speed, we’ve got length on defense with the corners and safeties and up front we’re physical,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said of the talent he inherited. “The best thing I can say about our football (team) is you put the ball on the grass and they like to compete. They practice and play their butts off. We will need that type of energy to win Saturday.”

They have ECU’s attention, if not the rest of the nation.

“I think they’re a Top 5 team,” Pirates head coach Scottie Montgomery said. “I’m not sure where, but in my opinion in the top five.”

UCF at East Carolina

When: 7 p.m., Saturday

Where: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville

TV: ESPN2

Radio: WNCT-107.9

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