Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Five things to watch

10:55 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017 Homepage
December 2, 2017 Atlanta: Auburn Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) throws against the Georgia Bulldogs during the first half of the SEC Football Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, December 2, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

Monday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is billed as UCF’s halo-board popping offense against Auburn’s turf-burn causing defense at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Knights (12-0), led by quarterback McKenzie Milton, have the FBS’ top-scoring offense (49.4 points per game), and the Tigers (10-3), featuring a fearsome defensive line, is 10th in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and 14th in total defense (312.3 yards per game).

It will be Auburn’s third opportunity this season to knock off an undefeated team after previously defeating Georgia and Alabama. The Bulldogs got revenge in the SEC Championship game, a defeat that cost the Tigers a likely spot in the College Football Playoff.

“We weren't happy the way we finished the last game, matter of fact, in the same stadium,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “After we got back and after all the hurt and everything was over, they rolled up their sleeves and said we need to win this bowl game. This will be our 11th win if we do get a victory, which we've only done six times in school history.”

Here are five things to watch in Monday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl:

Scott Frost’s sendoff: The Knights’ coach accepted the job at Nebraska, where he was a quarterback from 1995-97, a few weeks ago but has remained with UCF. Frost led the Knights to an 18-7 record and two bowl games in two years. 

“Yeah, we said our goodbye once,” Frost said. “This has been a really great experience, this bowl game, to spend some more time around them and be around them one more time. It will be bittersweet tomorrow. This certainly isn't an ideal situation for the players or for me or for my staff, but we all care about each other, and I don't know what the alternative would have been.”

It has been an interesting two years for Frost, who took over a program that went 0-12 in 2015.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said the coaches quickly realized that they were taking over a team that was better than its record. The players just needed some love: love from and for the coaches and love for themselves.

Linebacker Shaquem Griffin said that respect received and given was the biggest reason the team went from a winless season two years ago to possibly going 13-0 this season if it can win the Peach Bowl.

Former Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel will take over for Frost. Heupel was co-offensive coordinator at Missouri the past two seasons. Heupel is stepping into a good situation. In addition to Milton, the Knights will have back every skill player except for one on offense. In all, the Knights will lose 12 seniors or redshirt seniors from the two-deep depth chart for the Peach Bowl.

Going 13-0: If UCF defeats Auburn, it will finish as the lone 13-0 team in FBS. A  13th win would also set a school record and be the team’s first against Auburn. Oh, and Zoo Atlanta panda Yang Yang picked Auburn to win.

UCF has motivation.

“We're just excited to have this opportunity to even be in this spot,” UCF lineman Wyatt Miller said. “You know, it's extremely difficult to become 12-0 and to win every week. And you know what, that's what we've focused on every week. You take it week-by-week and you don't think about the next game or whatnot. You focus on the opponent that week. You know, it's going to be a challenge this week to be 1-0.”

Each team missing key players: UCF will be without starting left tackle Aaron Evans, a redshirt junior who has started every game except for one the previous three seasons. Jake Brown seems likely to move from guard to left tackle.

Auburn will be without All-American cornerback Carlton Davis, who has an undisclosed illness and was sent home, Malzahn said on Sunday.

Both absences are important for different reasons. 

If UCF’s offensive line can’t keep Auburn’s front four at bay, Milton won’t have much of a chance to extend the team’s 12-game streak of scoring at least 30 points a game. 

The Tigers’ front four of Jeff Holland, Dontavious Russell, Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson have led a defense that ranks ninth nationally in yards allowed per play (4.58) and has allowed negative or no yards on 36 percent of its plays this season. The quartet have combined for 33½ tackles for loss, including 19 sacks.

“I think we've done a good job of coming together these past couple weeks and learning how each other plays,” Miller said. “As far as just - one new person, you know, it's different when you put somebody else in there. We know we've got a tough challenge up ahead, but I think we've put enough work in and we're continuing to work; we're excited about the challenge.”

Auburn’s defense, which is allowing 177.8 passing yards a game, is facing a passing offense that is averaging 339.2 yards per game.

“Listen, they have got good players everywhere,” Frost said. “They have a bunch of good players in the secondary, and you know, we're missing a player or two, as well. You know, Aaron Evans has been a big part of what we've been doing and been the anchor on our offensive line.

“So inevitably in these bowl games, there's one or two situations like that, and I feel bad for both the kids that don't get a chance to play in this game. But I'm sure they have got plenty of good corners.”

Kerryon Johnson: Auburn’s running back will likely get lots of carries because the Tigers will want to keep the Knights’ offense on the sideline admiring the stadium’s environs, including the digital board that circles the upper ring of the stadium, rather than on the field.

Johnson is capable of carrying that load. The junior led the SEC in rushing yards per game (120), scoring (11.4 points per game) and all-purpose yards per game (137.1). He also scored 19 touchdowns, including 17 rushing. Auburn notes Johnson’s rushing touchdown total was more than 43 FBS teams had this season.

The Knights weren’t the best at stopping the run, allowing 165.7 yards per game with a season-high of 282 yards by Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game. What might that average had been had the game against Georgia Tech not been cancelled? 

Little bit of redemption: Almost a month ago, Auburn was beaten by Georgia in the SEC Championship game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The loss cost the Tigers the chance to be in the College Football Playoff.

Neither offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, formerly the coach at Lassiter High, nor defensive coordinator Kevin Steele seemed concerned that there would be any kind of hangover from that 28-7 defeat.

“Yeah, obviously, that game was a disappointment,” Auburn offensive lineman Austin Golson said. “Our team is trying to look at it as a chance to redeem ourselves in the stadium, come out and play much better than we did the first time we were here. But at the end of the day, you have to put that game behind us. You can't let Georgia beat us twice. That's what coach says, and that's what we have to be able to do. And we have to go out and perform to the best of our ability come Monday.”