For Tulane and Central Florida, Saturday’s American Athletic Conference opener at Yulman Stadium is a must-win game.
That’s not an exaggeration in the least. Considering what already has happened (UCF) and what is about to happen (Tulane), the loser may not recover.
The Green Wave (1-2), which has won only twice in its past 11 games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, faces a gauntlet of four consecutive undefeated teams to close out October. The Knights (0-4) failed to beat anyone in a much-less-imposing September lineup, looking nothing like the two-defending conference champion they are.
Both teams will play with desperation from the start.
“It’s going to be tough as nails,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “They are going to be jacked up for this game. We have to get a win. They have to get a win, so it’s going to be one of the games where we are going to pull out all the stops.”
While Tulane recovered from blowout losses to Duke and Georgia Tech by beating Maine 38-7 on Sept. 19, UCF is still looking for its reset button. The Knights took what appeared to be an unthinkable loss at home to Florida International on opening night before redefining the term two weeks later in a 16-15 defeat to Furman of the Football Championship Subdivision.
They followed each embarrassment with more expected defeats to Stanford and South Carolina (combined score: 62-21), but the conference schedule could not come soon enough for coach George O’Leary.
O’Leary hopes the muscle memory of UCF’s 15-1 AAC mark the past two years will kick in Saturday.
“We were leading in halftime in three of those games, and we have to understand that setbacks are going to happen,” he said. “We have some young players that still haven’t learned, but we’re looking forward to the conference play. We have only one goal in mind, and that’s to win the championship.”
The return of junior quarterback Justin Holman would help. Holman, the Knights’ starter last year, went 23-of-36 for 249 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions against Florida International before hurting his throwing hand early at Stanford. His replacements, freshmen Bo Schneider and Tyler Harris, have combined for six interceptions.
Although O’Leary has not confirmed Holman’s status, he is listed on top of UCF’s depth chart this week.
Still, Tulane is not worrying too much about which quarterback will play. Last year, the Wave picked off Holman twice and limited him to 113 passing yards in a tight 20-13 loss in Orlando, Florida.
“That’s a big help,” safety Darion Monroe said. “They tied for the conference championship, and we were neck and neck with them. That let us know we could play with them and anybody in the conference.”
While UCF has played without as many as seven projected contributors on offense because of injury or dismissal, Tulane has remained relatively healthy. The issue was the team’s mental health after the lopsided losses to Duke and Georgia Tech, but the Wave’s complete victory against Maine alleviated some of those concerns.
‘It definitely gave us the shot of confidence we needed after a rough start,” sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee said. “Now we have to put that behind us and roll with that confidence and string together some wins. We have a lot of teams ahead of us that haven’t lost a game and are playing really well, so it’s important for us to get a win here.”
Maine is no facsimile for UCF regardless of the Knights’ record, but the Tulane players needed the feeling of executing well in every department.
“You can see the confidence on both sides of the ball and on special teams,” Monroe said. “We have some young guys who needed it coming into this week. This first conference game is the most important one, and it builds on to the next one and the next one.”
A coach cannot label an opener a must win because he would have nothing to fall back on if his team lost.
Clearly, though, Johnson understands Saturday’s importance.
“We haven’t had much success in the conference, so we have to win as many as we can,” he said. “We have to play with a lot of swagger and play hard. This game is high, high on the red-alert chart. Hopefully we can get this one and move on to next week.”