ORLANDO, Fla. — Central Florida wanted Friday to be more about its game against South Florida and less about the outside interest in Knights coach Scott Frost. UCF got its wish with a game that went down to the wire. Here are three thoughts from the Knights’ 49–42 win.
1. Moments after USF tied the score with a bomb and a two-point conversion, the Spectrum Stadium stands shook as UCF safety Mike Hughes broke into the open field and returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown that put the Knights up seven with 1:28 remaining. About a minute later, UCF linebacker Chequan Burkett recovered a Mitch Wilcox fumble to seal the win.
The thriller put a homegrown rivalry on a national stage. One component of that national interest was due to several programs with huge fan bases wanting to hire UCF coach Scott Frost, but anyone who turned on the game would have been sucked in by the drama generated by two loaded rosters duking it out for the American Athletic Conference’s East Division title.
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton completed 29 of 44 passes for 373 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. Milton also ran for 56 yards and a touchdown. His USF counterpart, Quinton Flowers, completed 24 of 45 passes for 503 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. Flowers also ran for 102 yards and a touchdown.
UCF led from midway through the first quarter until 1:41 remained. Flowers hit Darnell Salomon for an 83-yard touchdown to pull the Bulls within two, and then he hit D’Ernest Johnson in the left corner of the end zone to tie the game at 42. But Hughes didn’t let the Bulls celebrate long. He was soon tearing through USF’s kickoff coverage team en route to a historic win for the Knights, who will face Memphis next week for The American title.
2. The win freezes the clock on the Scott Frost sweepstakes. The UCF coach led Nebraska to a national title in 1997 as a quarterback, and the Cornhuskers would love to have Frost return to lead the program out of mediocrity. With Florida and Frost’s former boss Chip Kelly moving on from one another on Friday, the Gators could target a coach who quickly revived a program two hours south.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said after the Gators forced out Jim McElwain that no sitting coaches would be interviewed before their regular seasons (including championship games) end. Nebraska likely would observe this custom as well. Now that UCF has earned a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game, Frost’s season will not end until Dec. 2, meaning any suitors—including those beyond Nebraska and Florida—will have to wait to make their pitches. That doesn’t mean schools interested in Frost won’t try to ascertain Frost’s level of interest. They could reach out to his agent Jordan Bazant to determine whether he would consider their job. (Remember, it’s also possible that Frost could stay at UCF, which brings back a plethora of starters on both sides of the ball and should be excellent again.) Given the high-stakes game of chicken the schools with openings are playing in a seller’s market, schools likely would want a firm idea of whether Frost would actually take their job before waiting on him.
3. UCF’s win brings the Knights one step closer to a slot in a New Year’s Six Bowl. The highest ranked Group of Five conference champion is guaranteed a spot in one of those lucrative games, and at No. 15, UCF was the highest ranked Group of Five program in the most recent College Football Playoff ranking.
The Knights will face Memphis on Dec. 2 in the American’s title game at Spectrum Stadium. As long as Memphis beats East Carolina on Saturday in its regular-season finale, the winner of The American should claim that New Year’s Six spot. The Tigers were No. 20 in the most recent College Football Playoff ranking. The next highest ranked Group of Five program was Boise State at No. 22.