If you are going into the Fiesta Bowl thinking LSU is just going to roll over UCF because the Tigers are more battle-tested from the Southeastern Conference, think again.
The unbeaten Knights will pose more than a formidable challenge for the Tigers, because of their still-potent offense — even without injured star quarterback McKenzie Milton — and the key players LSU will be without for a half, or the entire game.
To that end, here are eight players who will have to be on point in key roles for the Tigers to get that first New Year’s Six bowl victory:
• Cornerbacks Kary Vincent and Kelvin Joseph: With All-American Greedy Williams having decided to skip the Fiesta Bowl after turning pro and Kristian Fulton needing ankle surgery from an injury in the Arkansas game, mark Vincent and Joseph Nos. 1 and 1A in terms of players who have to fill vital roles for the Tigers and fill them well. Even without Milton, UCF showed in its 56-41 victory over Memphis in the AAC championship game that it is still a threat to score points and move the ball. For the season, the Knights rank third in the FBS in total offense (545.4 yards per game) and sixth in scoring (44.2 ppg). The Knights spread the passes around, with three receivers with 40 or more catches: Gabriel Davis, Dredrick Snelson and Tre Nixon. Of course, we will see New Year’s Day if Joseph’s chronic hamstring injury from late in the season continues to hamper him, otherwise the critical starting role may fall to Terrence Alexander.
• Linebacker Micah Baskerville: Middle linebacker Jacob Phillips is suspended for the first half of the Fiesta Bowl after an overtime targeting call from the Texas A&M game — a long-ago penalty, perhaps, but one LSU must account for in the first half the UCF game. Fortunately for the Tigers, in a sense, they have been down this road before: Baskerville had to start for Joseph, who had to sit out the first half of the Florida game after a targeting ejection the previous game against Ole Miss. Baskerville performed well overall against the Gators and led LSU with 11 tackles, though he was out of position on some key plays. With another half-season of experience, the true freshman will likely be more prepared this time.
• Quarterback Joe Burrow: Do not blame Burrow for the Tigers losing that epic game to the Aggies. He ran and threw for six touchdowns and piled up 370 total yards, including 100 yards rushing. Those stats are skewed by all the overtimes at A&M, but the fact remains with a depleted defense LSU will have to score touchdowns to win the Fiesta Bowl and Burrow will have to lead them there. He will have to be back at his dual-threat best (he had a team-high 29 carries in the A&M game) and figures to find holes in a porous UCF defense that ranks a woeful 117th in the FBS in rushing defense allowing 227.4 yards per game.
• Defensive ends Glen Logan and Neil Farrell: The Tigers have already had to learn to cope without starting defensive end Breiden Fehoko, out since the Alabama game with an arm injury. It is doubtful LSU’s thin defensive front rotation can be any more tested than it was in the seven-overtime game at Texas A&M. But again, this will be another demanding game from a formidable UCF offense that also ranks sixth nationally averaging 276.5 yards per game rushing and probably won’t lose much without Milton since new starting QB Darriel Mack is such a capable dual threat.
• Running backs Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire: As we noted earlier, UCF’s rushing defense is woeful. The Tigers will have an opportunity to shred the Knights on the ground — an opportunity they'd better take advantage of. Not only does LSU need to outscore UCF, the Tigers need to keep the ball away from the Knights’ offense and rest what is sure to be a beleaguered LSU defense as much as possible. Brossette needs only 78 yards rushing to wrap up his senior year with a 1,000-yard campaign. It is hard not to see him getting it against UCF. It is even harder to see LSU winning if he does not.