UCF not only survived its most difficult stretch of the 2022 football season; it emerged as front-runners for both the American Athletic Conference championship, and an automatic New Year's Six bowl game bid.
The Knights (8-2, 5-1) have everything in front of them entering the final two weeks of the regular season, beginning with a Saturday morning — yes, not a misprint — showdown against Navy (3-7, 3-4).
A victory paired with a Houston loss at East Carolina guarantees UCF a spot in the AAC title game. The Knights, who moved up to No. 20 in the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings Tuesday night, can clinch home field advantage by defeating their last two opponents. They already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Cincinnati and Tulane courtesy of wins within the last three weeks.
"Everybody sees the sense of urgency that we have," defensive lineman Anthony Montalvo said earlier this week. "We have it in our palms. We just have to make sure we finish it."
Though it is in the midst of a third straight losing season, Navy is no pushover. Five of the Midshipmen's seven losses are by margins of 10 points or less, including a three-point defeat to Notre Dame last weekend.
Navy scored the last 19 points in that game and outscored UCF 17-0 in the fourth quarter last season to spring a 34-30 upset in Annapolis, Maryland.
Here are three things to watch in the Knights' final scheduled home game of the fall.
1. Rise and shine
Shortly after UCF wrapped up its crucial win at Tulane, the American Athletic Conference announced a surprising 11 a.m. kickoff time for its home finale with Navy.
Asked for his thoughts on the early start, Malzahn declared his team will be ready to go out and play — whenever, wherever.
"We could play out in the darn Walmart parking lot at 7 a.m. That's just the way it goes," Malzahn said.
Malzahn's first thought, instead, went toward the Bounce House attendance. He hopes for a boisterous Senior Day atmosphere, and to continue the Knights' winning ways on their home field.
Dating back to 2017, the Knights have won 35 of their last 38 games at FBC Mortgage Stadium — including a 5-1 mark this season. The lone loss occurred on Sept. 9, a disappointing 20-14 result against Louisville.
2. Run, run, run
Saturday's showdown pits two of the nation's 10 most prolific rushing offenses head-to-head.
UCF gashed Tulane, the AAC's top defense, for 336 yards on the ground last weekend and vaulted into the No. 5 spot in FBS at 249.5 per game. John Rhys Plumlee returned from a concussion to pace the Knights with 176 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, breaking off 47- and 67-yard sprints in the opening quarter.
Isaiah Bowser hammered away on the Green Wave down the stretch as well, logging 13 offensive touches and gaining 49 of the 75 yards on a key fourth-quarter scoring drive that drained more than eight minutes off the clock. He polished that possession off with a 1-yard plunge.
Navy, with its famed triple-option scheme, ranks 10th in the country at 238.7 rushing yards per game. Daba Fofana is the Midshipmen's top rusher with 635 yards and six touchdowns though Maquel Haywood is, statistically, their most efficient ball-carrier at 6.3 yards per attempt.
Interestingly, Navy is also one of the country's best teams at stopping the run. They allow 85.8 yards per game to opponents, though it remains to be seen if their defenders can keep pace with UCF's speed on the perimeter — namely Plumlee on keepers, and Johnny Richardson and Ryan O'Keefe on sweeps.
3. Milestone watch
Three of the Knights' stars could make significant moves in the single-season record books in the final two weeks.
Plumlee needs three TD runs to match Daunte Culpepper for the most by a UCF quarterback; he's currently one shy of Jeff Godfrey for second place. Last week, the senior topped Vic Penn's single-game rushing yard mark, a record he held for 23 years.
Bowser could move into sole possession of second place in the same category among running backs with three more scores. He leads the team, and is tied for eighth nationally, with 13 rushing touchdowns. Latavius Murray, inducted earlier this year into UCF's Athletics Hall of Fame, had 15 in his senior year (2012).
It will take a truly Herculean effort for anyone to surpass Kevin Smith's 2007 season. Now the running backs coach at Miami, Smith scored 29 times while gaining 2,567 yards — placing eighth in Heisman Trophy voting, for good measure.
Defensively, Jason Johnson can become just the 44th player in program history to reach the 100-tackle mark with nine more Saturday. In his first season with the Knights after making the leap from FCS Eastern Illinois, Johnson averages 9.1 per game — tied for 27th in the FBS.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: NCAA football: 3 things to watch for Navy Midshipmen-UCF Knights