ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — UCF will put an eighth consecutive season of bowl eligibility on the line when it plays its regular-season finale against Houston at noon Eastern Standard Time Saturday at FBC Mortgage Stadium.
The Knights (5-6, 2-6 in the Big 12) and BYU (5-6, 2-6) are the only two of the four newcomers to the Big 12 who still have an opportunity to make a bowl appearance this season.
What You Need To Know
- UCF takes on Houston at noon EST Saturday in its regular-season finale
- The Knights need a victory to achieve bowl eligibility for the eighth season in a row
- The team's seniors and their families will be recognized at 11:30 a.m. on the field
- Houston is the only team among the Big 12 newcomers to beat two legacy league squads in 2023
“Really, that’s what’s on our mind….It’s a one-game season,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said.
“Getting bowl eligible would be a great shot in the arm,…” Malzahn said. “We’ve had some growing pains and lost some tough ones, close ones. I think everyone knows that. But this would be a really good thing, not just for the senior class, but for our program. Going into next year with some momentum, that’s always really important.”
Making a bowl game would also give the team extra practices to help get ready for next year.
UCF, BYU and the Houston Cougars (4-7, 2-6) also will be looking to end their seasons on a high note by taking at least a share of the best record among the Big 12 additions this season. Houston is the only one of the four that has won two games against legacy Big 12 teams, with victories against Baylor and West Virginia.
Three of UCF’s six losses against legacy teams have been by two points or less — Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas Tech. Untimely turnovers cost the Knights a victory against Baylor, and UCF missed the potential tying two-point conversion with 1 minute, 16 seconds on the clock against Oklahoma.
As much as any other reasons, the Knights will play for their seniors and Malzahn, whose teams have made bowl games in 11 of his 12 seasons as a head coach.
UCF will recognize its seniors before the game, at 11:30 a.m. EST. They include several fifth-year players who spent their entire college careers at UCF and took advantage of an extra season granted because of the COVID pandemic — offensive linemen Lokahi Pauole, Chidoziri Maghiro and Edward Collins; tight end Alec Holler; defensive lineman Tre’mon Morris-Brash and linebacker Walter Yates III. Starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and linebacker Jason Johnson, who transferred to UCF in 2022, also will be wrapping up their fifth seasons of college football.
“You want to send out these guys on a positive note,…” Malzahn said. “Those are memories these guys will have forever.”
Plumlee said he is thankful that he ended up at UCF when he transferred.
“What an unbelievable spot, an unbelievable community, unbelievable team and coaches that I’ve got to be around,” Plumlee said. “As it’s getting to the last home game, it’s a little surreal.”
Malzahn said the team has been resilient all year, and he is confident this team will rebound after a 24-23 loss at Texas Tech last week, when Colton Boomer’s extra-point attempt was blocked at the end of the game.
“Playing for these seniors, playing for a chance to go to a bowl, playing their last home game, they’ll be motivated,” Malzahn said.
Plumlee said he knows a lot of other athletes would love to be in his position, so he never takes for granted the opportunity to play another game.
“The reality of it (end of college football career) starts to hit when you’re a little bit older,” he said. “….The legacy of it that we want to leave is one with a bowl win. So, we’re going to attack it this week.”
For the Knights to get a victory, they will need to find a way to slow Houston’s dual-threat quarterback, Donovan Smith. He has thrown for 21 touchdowns and an average of 240 pass yards per game and is also second on the team with 404 yards rushing and leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
UCF’s defense has struggled against the run this season, but the Knights lead the Big 12 in pass defense and have given up the fewest passing touchdowns in the conference. The Knights’ defense is seventh in the Big 12 in sacks, with Morris-Brash and Malachi Lawrence ranking third and fourth in the conference.
Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen said teams have gone through the same challenges this season.
“It’s all transition,” Holgorsen said. “It’s hard every week. You look at their schedule, these guys compete. They took some losses because they play good teams.”
Even though both UCF and Houston were members of the AAC before this season, they have not played since 2020, a 44-21 Knights win.
Some of the Knights have a little extra on the line Saturday.
- Running back RJ Harvey, who has rushed for 1,160 rushing yards, has been named a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award, presented annually to the nation’s best collegiate running back.
- Johnson enters Saturday’s game just seven tackles shy of reaching 100 tackles with 93 this season, and if he achieves that goal, he would become the first UCF player with back-to-back 100-tackle seasons since the 2012-13 seasons, when Clayton Geathers and Terrance Plummer accomplished the feat.
- Wide receiver Javon Baker leads the Big 12 Conference and ranks 26th nationally in receiving yards with 907. He seeks to become the Knights’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Marlon Williams in 2020.
The game will have a different feel than their final regular-season games the past several seasons. In addition to needing a victory to reach a bowl game, the Knights are playing on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, not on Black Friday, and they won’t face USF, their in-state rival when both teams played in the American Athletic Conference.
Content from The Associated Press contributed to this report.