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November 16, 2012ORLANDO, Fla. - During the preseason, UCF coach George O'Leary wasn't shy when said that he wanted to capstone his final season in Conference USA with a third league championship.
The Knights have trudged through 10 games, an up and down non-conference schedule and an early season injury to one of its top players. But they still find themselves just one win away from earning that shot.
A win Saturday at Tulsa (8-2, 6-0) will lock up UCF's fourth East Division title and trip to the league championship game since joining the league in 2005. With a move to the Big East awaiting it in 2013, it could be the perfect send off for a program that eyes much loftier goals in future.
"We still both have to win games to win the division," O'Leary said. "No one has secured that yet. I think the big thing is that you have to have the ability to go out (and win). The winner of that game is in the driver's seat for the home-field advantage for the conference (championship) game."
While the Knights (8-2, 6-0) have struggled with similar expectations in some previous seasons, O'Leary said he has a confidence in this year's senior class that he's never felt before.
"It's a big game because it is, as the players said, it is the next game," he said. "This group of kids understands those things probably the best, and more than some of the other teams I've had. It's a game and, as we say, the 11th game of the season. But it's a lot more than that because of the implications with the game. They understand that and this game is about, basically, going out and getting your job done in all three phases."
A total of 11 UCF seniors have already received degrees, including leading rusher Latavius Murray, who enters the matchup with the Golden Hurricane with 810 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
Murray suffered a shoulder injury in the Akron season opener and missed the next three weeks, which included matchups with Ohio State and Missouri.
The Knights predictably struggled without him, causing some C-USA watchers to reassess UCF's chances of being able to surpass East Carolina in the East Division. Even when he returned Murray needed a few games to be deemed fully-recovered, but has posted 100-yard rushing efforts in each of the Knights last four games, along with eight touchdowns.
Now he'll face easily his toughest test of the season against a Tulsa defense that boasts the league's best rushing defense, surrendering just 118.2 yards per game.
"Most definitely," Murray said when asked if he's excitement level is raised this week. "I love the challenge. The whole offense loves the challenge and myself especially. So it's definitely a challenge we accept and we know how hard we gotta work during the week to go out there and make the yards that we need to make."
Defensively, the Knights also will have to play mistake-free opposite C-USA's top-ranked rushing offense, led by Ja'Terian Douglas (80.8 yards per game average) and Alex Singleton (18 touchdowns).
UCF senior free safety Kemal Ishmael, who leads the team in tackles and interceptions, has unquestionably been the most vocal leader in the Knights defense. He said he doesn't fear Tulsa's fast-paced attack.
"It's a big game for us and we just have to win that advantage (playing at home) to compete for a conference championship," Ishmael said.
The Golden Hurricane needed a fourth quarter score to earn their 24-17 win last year.
That close finish is why Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said he's expecting an equally tight matchup across the board this time around. That's especially the case when - given their respective leads on their division chasers - it's highly likely that these two teams will meet again in the Dec. 1 title game.
"I just think we're playing against a team very similar to ourselves," Blakenship said. "It's a challenge. It's exciting. This is the kind of football you should be playing for championships... They're very complete. That's probably the best way to put it."