The LSU Tigers are headed to the desert for its biggest football game in the playoff era.
Early Sunday afternoon, the College Football Playoff committee selected No. 11 LSU to play No. 8 Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, which will be played at noon Jan. 1 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The bowl matchup pits an LSU team that has never played in a New Year's Six bowl game with a repeatedly snubbed UCF program that once again finds itself on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
No. 11 LSU (9-3) will play its highest-profile game in coach Ed Orgeron's tenure, and the Tigers will have a chance to record its first 10-win season since 2013.
“It’s a reward for our young men that worked very hard,” Orgeron said during the Fiesta Bowl's teleconference Sunday afternoon. “Thought we’ve had a good season, and these guys started off unknown throughout the season. Had some very big wins throughout the season. We gelled as a football team. It’s a great reward for our football team. Very well deserved.”
After recording victories over three top 10 opponents, LSU had a slim chance to qualify for the College Football Playoff until a seven-overtime, 74-72 loss to Texas A&M in their final game of the regular season knocked them out of consideration.
Now, a statement postseason victory will have to come against a UCF program that LSU has never played in history.
A program that longed for a quarterback to be its hero received one Saturday night in College Station, Texas.
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No. 8 UCF (12-0) hasn’t lost a game since the 2016 season, and after finishing the 2017 season 13-0 with a 34-27 Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, the Knights notoriously proclaimed themselves national champions. They even held a national title parade at Disney World, and the words “2017 National Champions” are proudly displayed inside their home stadium in Orlando, Florida.
UCF last lost to Arkansas State 31-13 in the 2016 Cure Bowl, and then-coach Scott Frost brought the program to prominence before leaving to coach Nebraska in 2018.
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Under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, UCF finished the regular season 12-0 by beating Memphis 56-41 on Saturday in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
The statistics are all there: UCF has the nation’s No. 6 scoring offense (44.2 points per game); it has the No. 24 scoring defense (21.3 points allowed per game); it forces the eighth-most turnovers in the nation, 26 — but the Knights never gained the respect it needed to reach the playoffs because they were never tested against an elite team during the season.
On Sunday, UCF was left out of the playoffs again.
"Our football team was disappointed in not having the opportunity to go earn that (respect) on the football field, absolutely," Heupel said in Sunday's teleconference. "They had a feeling it was going to happen."
UCF had the nation’s No. 83-ranked strength of schedule, according to SBNation’s S&P+ rankings, and it only played one opponent ranked within the AP Top 25: No. 19 Cincinnati, which UCF beat 38-13 at home on Nov. 17.
The Knights have beaten their opponents by an average of 23 points; and the offense seemed to take a big blow when starting quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale against South Florida.
The knee was normal, and that was the news.
But backup quarterback Darriel Mack filled in for Milton with a stellar performance against Memphis, going 19 of 27 passing for 348 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 59 more yards and four touchdowns.
"It's unbelievable what they've done," said Orgeron, remarking on UCF's 25-game win streak. "Especially through a coaching change. They must have a great culture out there, with guys (that) believe in winning that know how to practice, know to compete, know how to win."
LSU will be the most talented team UCF has seen since its Peach Bowl victory over Auburn last season, although the Tigers defense will be without starting cornerback Greedy Williams, who announced Sunday that he will be entering the 2019 NFL draft.
An LSU official confirmed that Williams will not play in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Tigers have the nation’s No. 22-ranked scoring defense (20.9 points allowed per game), and what had been a struggling offense finished the regular season with a 74-72 loss at Texas A&M in seven overtimes.
LSU played two opponents outside Power 5 conferences this season — Louisiana Tech (7-5), a 38-21 win on Sept. 22; Rice (2-11) a 42-10 win on Nov. 17 — and the Tigers surrendered their most passing yards in a game this season to Louisiana Tech, whose quarterback, J’Mar Smith, threw for 330 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.