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November 23, 2012
UCF looking for title game berth
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - George O'Leary has been a football coach long enough to know how fortunate his team is this late in November.
UCF went to Tulsa last week unbeaten in Conference USA play and needing just one victory to lock up both the East Division and home field advantage in the league championship game.
The Knights, who had been on a six-game winning streak, lost 23-21.
But thanks to an identical one-loss conference record and early-season victory over division chaser East Carolina, UCF (8-3, 6-1) has a rare chance at a football mulligan on Saturday in its regular-season finale against visiting UAB (3-8, 2-5).
It's simple. Win and the Knights get a rematch with Tulsa in the C-USA title game on Dec. 1. It wouldn't be a home game like they wanted, but it's still a shot to accomplish their season goals nonetheless.
O'Leary said it made for a very easy speech to his team this week.
"Very few teams still have a chance to play for two championships," O'Leary said. "As I told them, it is a very unusual situation where that (Tulsa) game would've got us the divisional championship. That's all...we need to take advantage of it."
After putting up no fewer than 31 points during their winning streak, the 21 the Knights put up against the Golden Hurricane was their lowest output since a 21-16 loss to Missouri back in September.
O'Leary said the Knights' offense was "out of sync the whole game" at all positions.
Fixing those issues will be paramount for the group of 20 UCF seniors playing in their final home game. A win would not only give them a shot at their second league title and Liberty Bowl berth. With 32 wins since 2009, they are one victory short of tying the most victories for any UCF team over a four-year stretch.
"Coming from high school, our football team was pretty good and we had a chance to win a state championship, but we got knocked off late my senior year. So I was never a champion in high school," senior offensive lineman Theo Goins said. "So to come to UCF and be faced with the opportunity to be two-time champions...That's more than what I expected."
Asked what needs to be done to ensure opportunity becomes reality, Goins said keeping a singular focus is the key.
"We've been working all season, that's how we got to the point where we are now," he said. "We take the wins with the losses...We know what's at stake."
UAB, who beat the Knights 26-24 last season in Birmingham, it is expected to have harder time this year if it wants to play the spoiler role.
The Blazers' 46-9 loss to Memphis last week was their most lopsided loss of the season at home. UAB was coming off back-to-back wins over Southern Mississippi and Marshall. But it managed just 213 yards of offense, including 26 yards rushing.
Now it gets C-USA's top ranked defense, which has allowed more than 25 points only once over the past seven games.
First-year Blazers' coach Garrick McGee insists that his team is "not playing to spoil" UCF. Still, even with the postseason no longer a possibility, he said strides can be made their season-finale. Especially by redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Brown, who continues to battle through a groin injury.
"It's affecting his movements. He's not moving as well as we'd like, but he's doing a good job managing the game for us," McGee said of Brown. "We're in the process of developing our program. We want Austin to feel that pain. I want him to understand how that felt like, so in the offseason, as he's thinking and preparing for the next season, he understands how that really hurts to perform like that and to have our team perform like that.
"I'm invested in Austin right now."
Regardless of the motivation of UCF's opponent, Knights' senior receiver Quincy McDuffie said he welcomes the challenge of his team playing with so much at stake this week.
On top of everything else McDuffie, an Orlando native, said he may have as many as 15 family members in the stands on Saturday.
He will already leave as the most-decorated kickoff return man in UCF history, the all-time leader in both return yards and touchdowns.
"This is a must-win for us," he said. "I love challenges. Practices are supposed to be hard and everything else, and then Saturday or Friday night you're expected to go out there and have fun.
"I've enjoyed my years at UCF. It's been like another home to me and I love every challenge that's been thrown my way and every opportunity that I've been given. And I feel like, for the most part, I took advantage of it."