Fiesta Bowl preview: Can UCF topple an SEC power for the second year in a row?
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Fiesta Bowl
Who: No. 11 LSU Tigers (9-3, 5-3 SEC) vs. No. 8 UCF Knights (12-0, 9-0 AAC)
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
TV: ESPN
Odds: UCF +7.5
Over/Under: 55.5

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats LSU UCF
Points Per Game 31.8 (T-44) 44.2 (6)
Points Against/Game 20.9 (22) 21.3 (T-24)
Rush Yards/Game 174.7 (58) 276.5 (6)
Pass Yards/Game 214.7 (80) 268.9 (30)
Total Yards/Game 389.3 (77) 545.4 (3)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 139.3 (38) 227.4 (117)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 206.8 (43) 196.2 (32)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 346.1 (29) 423.6 (86)
Third-Down Offense 39.0% (68) 51.3% (4)
Third-Down Defense 35.0% (32) 41.1% (88)
Red-Zone Offense 89.1% (T-23) 89.5% (T-18)
Red-Zone Defense 84.2% (77) 74.4% (13)
Team Sacks/Game 2.42 (T-43) 2.25 (57)
Turnover Differential +12 (7) +14 (T-3)

(Division I rank in parentheses)

Season review

LSU

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What a strange season for LSU and Ed Orgeron.

The head coach entered the season listening to whispers that he might be on the proverbial hot seat. However, things got off to a tremendous start, with the Tigers laying a 33-17 whooping on Miami to open the season.

The wins kept coming, as the Tigers ripped off a five-game win streak before slipping up against Florida in October.

LSU bounced back by throttling Georgia in one of the most comprehensive wins of the season. Orgeron’s team owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They looked inventive on offense and overwhelming on defense.

Could they be the team to knock off Alabama? The chatter started - and soon halted, as the Crimson Tide embarrassed LSU 29-0.

The Tigers looked smaller, slower, and like every one of the other opponents the Crimson Tide had cast aside with ease. That’s not supposed to happen at LSU.

Orgeron and Co. sputtered to the end of the season after the Bama debacle. An unconvincing 24-17 win over a terrible Arkansas side was followed up with a win over Rice and that preposterous seven-overtime game against Texas A&M.

LSU fans and pundits alike went into 2018 looking for more clarity on Orgeron at LSU. Doubters were waiting to pounce on mistakes while believers wanted to see the coach's evolved vision for his program.

In total, we got much of the same. LSU was shaky on offense and excellent on defense. Have you heard that story before?

While star defensive coordinator Dave Aranda still has all those springy Cajuns on defense, he doesn’t have the best horses up front to compete with the nation’s elite. Losing sophomore sensation K’Lavon Chaisson early in the year paralyzed the team’s pass rush. The Tigers finished the regular season 104th in sack rate. Remember, this is LSU!

Aranda has relied on a pacey secondary and a star-studded linebacking corps to bail out a less-than-intimidating defensive line. The cliche that Group of 5 programs cannot play with Power 5 programs because of the difference in line play won’t hold water on Sunday night.

UCF

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Josh Heupel’s first year with the Knights has been a smashing success. 13-0, a second straight AAC championship, a debate on whether they should be in the College Football Playoff, and another chance to upset an SEC team with less to play for in a bowl game. This is UCF’s national championship. It means little to LSU.

This year’s numbers aren’t quite as gaudy as Scott Frost’s dream team from a year ago. Still, UCF has been waxing opponents, winning 12 of their 13 games by two or more scores. The Knights' offense is as explosive as ever, ranking ninth in the country in plays of 20 yards or more.

All of this despite the fact that they lost star quarterback McKenzie Milton at the very end of the season.

Despite Milton being out, they came from behind to beat Memphis in the AAC championship game by two touchdowns. That’s the hallmark of a great team.

Players to watch

LSU LB Devin White

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White is the Tigers' blockbuster player. He's a great athlete and a future top draft pick, but you’ve likely heard all about his exploits.

He has been up and down for much of this season. White's highlights are so impressive - the speed, the aggression - that they cover up the other snaps where he fails to execute his designated assignment, a cardinal sin for an off-ball linebacker.

Georgia went right after White. The linebacker is at his best thundering downhill - he wants to attack. Georgia used that instinct against him. The Bulldogs ran spread-ISO looks, isolating White one-on-one with a guard or center and taking the attack to him early in the action - the spread element meant the box was cleared and White was responsible for more space.

Expect UCF to go after him, too, but the Knights don’t have the same caliber of athlete on their offensive line as Georgia. Instead, look for Heupel to drop some eye candy in front of White, baiting him one way and then attacking the space that he vacates.

White has a penchant for wanting to make the home-run play on every down. He will look to undercut blocks and penetrate into the backfield rather than scraping over the top of the block and maintaining his discipline:

Aranda knows this and tries to solve the problem by blitzing White over and over again. White blitzes as much as any Mike linebacker in college football. It protects him from some of his worst habits. If he vacates gaps in the run game, UCF’s explosive ground attack will take advantage.

LSU S Grant Delpit

Delpit is the best safety in college football. He has a solid case for being the most valuable defender for any defense in the country.

He sports rare range, both in terms of the ground he can cover and the number of roles he can switch between. Need him down in the box? He’s got you covered. How about matching up with one of those new-age polar bears that they’re calling tight ends these days? He’s got the length and flexibility to do that, too. What about playing in the deep middle third of the field, helping his corners, and reading the quarterback? Well, that’s where he’s at his best.

Delpit’s athleticism leaps off the screen, but his instincts are just as elite:

You can count on one hand the number of college safeties capable of making that play. None of them do it with Delpit’s touch of pizzazz.

UCF QB Darriel Mack Jr.

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Give Mack credit. He was put into a really tough spot. Milton is a historical, program-changing athlete - he will go down in Knight folklore. Once he suffered his brutal knee injury, it was fair to wonder whether UCF’s offense could continue to reach the same mind-boggling heights it had for the previous 23 months.

The Knights have. Mack is more of a prototypical quarterback - 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, with a big arm and impressive wheels - and he's got everything but experience going in his favor:

The AAC championship game against Memphis was a big test. He struggled early but was excellent down the stretch. Most importantly: He never panicked, despite multiple fumbles. Mack kept dropping back and slinging the ball downfield.

Heupel has rejigged UCF’s offense from the Frost days. There is less pre-snap movement and the team goes deep much more often. Mack’s has the option to take a deep shot on each and every play.

LSU presents an intriguing test. The Tigers have so much talent on the back end that deep isolation shots - the foundation of the system - will be tough. And it’s not like Mack is going to get the amount of time he’s used to. LSU’s pass rush isn’t great, but Mack will have to deal with the swarm of blitzes Aranda is going to send his way. That’s a big ask for a freshman.

UCF DB Richie Grant

Grant is almost a football oxymoron: a converted wide receiver who leads the Knights in tackles.

That’s never a good thing. Grant is typically chasing down the backside of a blown assignment or wondering whether he really, really needs to square up an oncoming running back.

He’s gotten in the way of enough runners this season to post 80 tackles, a worrying number for any defensive coordinator. If your safety leads the team in tackles, that means runners are routinely getting up to the second or third level unblocked.

Grant does his best work in static, split-safety looks where he’s able to play ball hawk and read the opposing quarterback’s eyes in zone coverage. He leads the team in interceptions with six. UCF could do with him nabbing a big pick this weekend.

LSU's keys to victory

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Fool Mack with zone blitzes: This is the key to the entire game. If LSU halts UCF’s offense, the Knights have no shot.

Aranda’s zone-pressure package is varied yet simple: one guy drops, one guy blitzes. But who is coming, and where from, is the tricky question.

Aranda abandons some of the niftier “rain” (read-option) blitzes and more intricate zone pressures - a blitzing defender with zone coverage behind - in favor of his own brand of simplistic fire-zone stuff.

Fire-zone pressures are used to bait a quarterback to throw the “hot” route only to find that the defense was one step ahead, dropping a lineman or linebacker into that area for an interception.

None of this is rocket science, but it's highly effective. LSU’s sack rate leaps from 104th in the country to 20th when the Tigers blitz. They don’t get any kind of organic pressure with a three- or four-man rush. But when Aranda takes the game into his hands - attacking through play design rather than relying on his pass-rushers - the Tigers begin to squeeze quarterbacks and force mistakes.

Asking a freshman quarterback with limited experience to do schematic battle with Aranda seems like folly.

Live in third-and-short on offense: LSU’s offense has, for the most part, been stuck in the mud on third downs this year. It ranks 110th in third-and-long success rate and 85th in third-and-medium success rate.

The numbers, however, balloon when they’re in third-and-short. In short yardage situations, they convert a hair below 50 percent, good for eighth in the country. By contrast, UCF’s defense has been one of the worst teams in college football on third downs. The Knights rank 118th in third-down success, gifting first downs a whopping 46.7 percent of the time. They sit behind the likes of Kansas, UMass, and UTSA in that regard. Yikes.

Something will have to give on Sunday evening.

UCF's keys to victory

Win the early downs on defense: UCF’s offense gets all the credit, but its defense is solid, ranking in the top 40 of S&P+. Its greatest strength: forcing an offense to play all three downs.

UCF ranks 20th in the percentage of first downs it gifts on first and second downs. It sounds simple, but asking an offense to drive the length of the field, three downs at a time, is a daunting task. There’s a greater risk of mistakes and there are more opportunities for defenders to make great plays.

Finish drives: UCF’s offense trails only Oklahoma in points per scoring opportunity. In layman’s terms, when they’re in a position to get points, they get them.

LSU’s defense is fast, dynamic, and built to create turnovers. If UCF moves the ball comfortably, it has to cash in with points at each and every opportunity.

Prediction

LSU 28, UCF 14

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Fiesta Bowl preview: Can UCF topple an SEC power for the second year in a row?
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