Temple University and Central Florida have a short history playing each other.
They never played before the 2013 season, the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural year. But each of the five years they’ve played one another, they had conference championship aspirations on the line. On Thursday night in Orlando, Florida, the two schools will fight for first place in the East Division.
UCF, the defending conference champion, enters the game as an 11-point favorite over Temple (5-3, 4-0 American Athletic Conference), according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. The Knights, (7-0, 4-0 The American) who are the No. 9 team in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll, are on a 20-game winning streak dating back to their loss to Arkansas State University in 2016.
“Our guys embrace backs against the wall,” Coach Geoff Collins said Monday. “[UCF] is as good as an atmosphere there is in college football. [These] are the kind of games you chose to play at this level to be in. We have to embrace the opportunity.”
With one more win, Temple would clinch bowl eligibility for the fifth straight season and be able to win the East Division by running the table.
On Saturday, then-No. 21 South Florida (7-1, 3-1 The American) dropped its first game of the season, 57-36, to Houston (7-1, 4-0 The American), making the path to the conference title game more clear. Temple and UCF are the only undefeated teams in conference play in the East Division, and No. 17 Houston is the lone team in the West.
Both Temple and UCF had bye weeks before Thursday’s game. The Knights played their most recent game, a 37-10 win against East Carolina on Oct. 20, without starting quarterback McKenzie Milton.
The junior didn’t play against ECU due to an injury, UCF first-year coach Josh Heupel said Milton’s status will be a “game-time” decision for the game. If Milton doesn’t play, redshirt-freshman Darriel Mack will start for the Knights.
Collins said he is preparing for both Milton and Mack to start. He added that the UCF offense has “more designed quarterback runs,” along with running the triple option when Mack plays. Mack rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown while completing 12 passes for 69 yards against ECU.
“Both are big-time players with a complementary cast surrounding them that is as good as anyone in the country,” Collins said.
This season, Milton has completed 119 of his 200 pass attempts for 1,797 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Milton is a potential candidate for the Heisman Trophy, which is given to college football’s most outstanding player, after finishing eighth in voting last year.
Either UCF or Temple has been involved in every conference championship in the history of The American. UCF won the championship outright in 2013 and shared the title with Cincinnati and Memphis in 2014. Temple lost to Houston in the conference championship game in 2015 before the Owls beat Navy the following year. UCF won the East Division and the conference last season.
Last year, after the Knights went undefeated during the regular season, they won the American Athletic Conference title then defeated Auburn University in the Peach Bowl.
The AP ranked UCF sixth in its final poll of the 2017-18 season, while the NCAA officially recognized its national championship claim alongside the University of Alabama, who won the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship.
UCF has won three out of the five matchups against Temple. Its 45-19 victory against the Owls in 2017 is the largest margin of victory for either school.
Collins said he put an emphasis on winning the turnover battle. Temple committed five turnovers, while UCF did not commit any last year. Forcing turnovers instead gives the Owls a higher chance of winning, he added.
In last year’s game, graduate student quarterback Frank Nutile, former running back David Hood and former wide receiver Adonis Jennings led the Owls in the box score. Hood and Jennings have graduated, while Nutile now backs up redshirt-sophomore quarterback Anthony Russo.
The Owls have a 5-1 record since Russo became the starter on Sept. 15 against the University of Maryland. Temple is on a three-game winning streak, which includes its overtime win on Oct. 20 against nationally ranked Cincinnati.
The team will kickoff at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando at 7:30 p.m.