A pair of nine-win teams face off in this year’s Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl. Conference USA runner-ups Central Florida get basically a home bowl game as they welcome in Ball State of the MAC to St. Petersburg. It’s the lone bowl game on Friday December 21, but should deliver some excitement since both teams are in the top 31 in the nation in scoring averaging over 35 points per game.
When to Watch: Friday, December 21, 7:00 PM ET
Where to Watch: Live on ESPN from Tropicana Field, Saint Petersburg, Florida
What to watch for
When Ball State has the ball: The Cardinals have won six in a row while scoring 30 or more points in each of those contests. Four of those six were road games, so their offense should be comfortable even though the game is in UCF’s back yard. Ball State’s starting quarterback, Keith Wenning was unable to play in the regular-season finale after getting injured against Ohio catching a pass. His status is unknown for the Bowl, and his backup Kelly Page also left the finale with an injury. Whoever plays quarterback, the focus of the Cardinal attack should be running back Jahwan Edwards who has rushed for over 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Ball State has scored 30 or more points in 10 of their 12 games this year.
Ball State’s 23rd ranked rushing offense will be a challenge for the UCF defense that allowed 160+ yards per game on the ground. UCF’s scoring defense is solid though ranking 29th in the nation.
When UCF has the ball: The Knights hung an average of 42 points per game on their opponents in their wins, and only lost when scoring less than 30. Sophomore QB Blake Bortles threw for 2,787 yards this season with 22 touchdowns. The receiving load is split pretty evenly between JJ Worton and Rannell Hall, but Latavius Murray does most of the heavy-lifting in the offense coming out of the backfield. Murray finished with 1.035 yards and 14 touchdowns with a four consecutive 100+ yard games in the middle of the season. UCF’s offense is fairly balanced and high-powered scoring 35.2 points per game placing the 27th in the nation.
Ball State’s defense is on the other end of the spectrum. They rank 90th out of 124 in scoring defense, 104th in total defense, 91st in passing defense, and 108th in rushing defense. Playing against MACtion-packed offenses didn’t help their ranks to be sure, but they’ll struggle to contain Bortles and the Knights in this one.
Special Teams: The Knights dropped the C-USA championship game to Toledo largely because of poor special teams play allowing a punt return touchdown and a blocked field goal. UCF can also put up some serious points on special teams with Quincy McDuffie as a major return threat who has three return touchdowns already this season.
Who to Watch (NFL Prospects)
There aren’t any top-tier prospects in this one, but there are some Knights who could go towards the end of the draft. Kemal Ishmael-UCF-FS, Quincy McDuffie-UCF-WR, and Latavius Murray-UCF-RB could all potentially be a sixth or seventh round pick or be undrafted free agents that catch on in the NFL next year.
The Cardinals are 0-5 in bowls and playing UCF in Florida will be a challenge. The uncertainty at quarterback for Ball State and the Central Florida defense make them the smart pick here. UCF only lost to Tulsa (twice), Missouri, and Ohio State this year and their two late-season losses to Tulsa were both extremely close. Ball State dropped conference games to Kent State and NIU as well as at Clemson early in the season. They allowed more than 35 in all three of their losses and their defense could once again be their undoing in this one.
The Knights are currently about 7.5 point favorites which seems about right to me. I’d hesitate to give the points since there should be points-a-plenty in this one and it could come down to a field goal game or even hit overtime. The Knights are the pick straight up, but I’d take Ball State against the spread to get the cover if Wenning is cleared to play.