PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 11 LSU (9-3) vs. No. 8 UCF (13-0)
They wanted Bama, but they'll have to settle for LSU.
Undefeated UCF is looking to secure its second consecutive undefeated season after being left out of the College Football Playoff again. To do it, UCF will have to beat a resurgent LSU squad in one of the more fascinating matchups of this bowl season.
The Knights have been in the national conversation all year, thanks in part to their move to declare themselves "national champions" following their undefeated 2017 campaign. That buzz carried over from the offseason into this one, where McKenzie Milton & Co. impressed on the field and ran the table once again, letting their play speak for itself.
The Tigers entered the season with a ton of question marks, not the least of which centered on head coach Ed Orgeron and how the team would fare in his second full season since the interim tag was removed. They responded impressively, winning their first five and nine of their first 11 before a wild, emotional, seven-overtime loss at Texas A&M to end the season.
Despite the three losses -- which included an eighth consecutive defeat to rival Alabama -- this season was a good one on the Bayou, sending the Tigers to a New Year's Six bowl for the first time since 2012. If they win, it'll mark their first 10-win season since 2013.
If the Knights are to take down another SEC power in a big-time bowl the way they did Auburn last season, they'll have to do it without the injured Milton. But first-year coach Josh Heupel will certainly have his team ready for its big opportunity. Orgeron said his team is "highly motivated" to do what no other team has in 25 tries: beat the Knights.
Key player for LSU: Devin White. He's the Tigers' best player and the leader of the unit. The Butkus Award finalist is the SEC's second-leading tackler (115 total stops), and you can find him everywhere -- stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and defending pass plays over the middle. He's fast, he hits with force and is usually in the right place at the right time.
Key player for UCF: QB Darriel Mack Jr. Mack won American Athletic Conference championship game Most Outstanding Player honors for his performance against Memphis in just his second career start. Mack scored six total touchdowns, had 407 yards and helped the Knights rally from a 17-point deficit to win. Without question, LSU will be his most difficult task. UCF has not faced an elite defense this season, and how Mack responds in his biggest start to date will be the biggest key for the explosive UCF offense. LSU is sure to come after him and make him uncomfortable, though the Tigers have to be on alert for Mack to take off and run at any moment. One more big key here: Mack had multiple fumbles in the first half against Memphis, so expect to see LSU defenders try to punch the ball out.
Most important matchup: White vs. Mack and UCF running backs. White announced he will play in the bowl game, a huge boost for a defense that will be missing several key starters. The junior is the best linebacker in the country. He's everywhere on the field, racking up 115 tackles, including 12 for loss, while adding two forced fumbles and five pass breakups. The Knights are best on offense when they have balance, so shutting down explosive backs like Greg McCrae and Adrian Killins Jr., while closing run lanes for Mack, has to be a major priority.
X factor: Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton are out. LSU will be without its two best cornerbacks after Williams declared for the NFL draft and Fulton underwent surgery on an ankle injury. Freshman reserve Kelvin Joseph also had a hamstring injury late in the season. That means the spotlight will be on Kary Vincent Jr. and Terrence Alexander against a veteran and diverse UCF receiving group that features the fast and athletic Gabriel Davis, Dredrick Snelson, Tre Nixon and the versatile Killins.