DALLAS (AP) – UCF has two chances this week to punch it’s ticket to a BCS bowl.
Either a Cincinnati loss to No. 19 Louisville on Thursday night or victory by the 15th-ranked Knights in their finale against SMU on Saturday will give UCF (10-1, 7-0) the American Athletic Conference title and the BCS berth that goes with it.
Coach George O’Leary prefers his team gets there on its own.
“Whatever happens on Thursday night, I don’t want to back into anything,” O’Leary said. “I think you want to win it if you have a chance to be undefeated in conference play. How many teams in the country can do that this year? … Our concern is playing SMU and winning the game. That’s why we’re playing. Whatever happens could be great for us or it doesn’t change anything. “
For a team that entered the season in the shadow of American-favorite Louisville, the Knights have fared well in the national spotlight late in the season while surviving in a series close games.
The Knights have posted six wins by seven or fewer points this season, including five in conference play.
The most recent was 23-20 win last week over rival South Florida.
O’Leary described the performance of his team’s usually dependable offense “awful” in a game that featured five UCF turnovers.
It’s underlined his call for extra focus this week.
“We’re very fortunate to win a game with five turnovers,” O’Leary said. “I’ve been in football a long time. I’ve had four and scraped by. Five? That’s a lot. It shows the resiliency of both sides of making plays when they had to make it. But again, the offense’s performance was unacceptable. They were told that.
“We just gotta get back to things that we do and stop worrying about individual (statistics), which I think was taking place a little bit.”
While they may not have played a complete game in all three phases yet, the Knights have to like their chances to claim their first conference championship since 2010.
The USF game aside, the Knights have won seven straight and have an offense that ranks second in the league averaging 34.6 points per game.
SMU (5-6, 4-3) is playing to become bowl eligible, but is coming off a 34-0 loss to Houston and its defense is giving up a league-worst 34.8 points per game.
Offensively it ranks third in the conference, averaging more than 440 yards, but may be without starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who entered the week listed as questionable with a knee injury.
The Mustangs started freshman Neal Burcham in his place and were out of sync throughout offensively against Houston.
The task only gets harder against a UCF offense that has been virtually unflappable late in games behind quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles is coming off a three-turnover game against USF, but ranks seventh nationally in pass efficiency (167.3) and has thrown for 3,038 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2013.
It’s why UCF receiver J.J. Worton said that even when games have gotten close, the trust in Bortles hasn’t changed.
“No one senses (him) being scared in the huddle,” Worton said. “We all know what he can do and we all know he’s gonna take us to where we need to be. And we trust him, we’re just gonna run our routes and know he’s gonna get the ball there.”
It’s also why senior offensive lineman Justin McCray expects the Knights to be in exactly the right frame of mind on Saturday, regardless of if they are already American champions or not before game time.
“We just keep looking at it like we have the past couple of weeks. We’ve got a championship game coming up, that’s how it was last week and the week before,” he said. “We (have) tunnel vision to this game. We’re not listening to what anybody else is saying. We’re just trying to get ready for SMU.”
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