UCF Vs. Duke: Predictions, Odds, Picks For Military Bowl (12/28/22)
It almost seemed like UCF were on their way to a nearly-full resurgence; they were back the AAC Championship game, and were set to face a Tulane team who they’d already beaten on the road. Unfortunately, that game didn’t go as well as the first for the Knights, as they lost a somewhat lopsided one. On the other hand, after wrapping up the David Cutliffe era with a disappointing 3-9 campaign, Duke have roared back to an 8-4 record in year 1 under head coach Mike Elko. With one team riding high and the other looking to regain a positive spin on the end of their season, let’s take a look at the odds and make some picks for this year’s Military Bowl.
UCF Vs. Duke Odds
It seems that UCF and the American Conference have earned the respect of the nation, as they’re only three-point underdogs against a solid power-5 team in Duke. As for the scoring total, that number is set at a fairly high 62.5 for these two high-scoring attacks.
UCF Vs. Duke Prediction & Pick
Sometimes, due to mandatory conference tie-ins, bowls can feel lopsided. In other cases, opt-outs and injuries can make them feel hollow. Neither will be the case in this matchup; it’s about as even as a bowl can get, as per Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, which places them at 41st and 42nd in the country (UCF has the tiny edge, for those interested) and almost no key players are opting out of this one. So it should be a closely-fought, and relatively high-level football game in Annapolis on Wednesday.
However, if there is a personnel disadvantage in this matchup, it would be on the UCF side. Starting QB John Rhys Plumlee is active, but has been dealing with a couple of nagging injuries down the stretch this season, so in a game that could be won on the margins, that’s the kind of small difference you’ll want to keep an eye on. They’re also missing one of their two main receiving threats in wideout Ryan O’Keefe, who has entered the transfer portal, and starting linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste. These aren’t huge losses compared to what some teams experience in bowls- others have lost entire position groups- but relative to a Duke team that should be intact for all intents and purposes, it could be a meaningful deficit for the Knights as they look to polish off a double-digit win season.
Of course, the major story for the Blue Devils this season has been the immense one-year turnaround under coach Elko. They may not have picked up any particularly enormous wins, but after last season, it was a huge accomplishment to simply hold steady and win essentially all of the realistically-winnable games, while improving in almost every measurable category on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Now, with almost the entire team available, Duke looks to get back to its early-2010s form and secure just their third 9+ win season since 1941. It would be the perfect finishing touch to a legitimate feel-good season, and a great launching pad for future successes.
To me, this is a really tough one to pick. During the regular season, I’d likely pick UCF, but with Plumlee’s health in doubt, and the slight opt-out discrepancy, I’m going to have to take Duke to cover the narrow spread, although a push would not surprise me, and this is frankly not a line I’m in love with; look for movement in either direction. For the scoring total, I’ll go with the under, once again due to the questions about Plumlee, and the absence of one of his top receivers to boot. This is also not necessarily a “best bet” of the week; if the UCF signal-caller is fully primed to go, this number could very well bust.
UCF Passing Game vs. Duke Air Defense
As has often been the case in the past, UCF is where it is because of the air game. PFF’s grading system puts them 18th in passing this year, while the line is an outstanding 5th in the pass block category. The receiving group is more average at 72nd, but with great QB play and an even more elite line, you can get a long way with little else to speak of in terms of offensive strengths. Of course, the heart of this group is Plumlee, who has had a pretty decent season through the air, and has even been UCF’s leading rusher with 840 yards and 11 scored; this isn’t necessarily a part of the passing offense per se, but it’s surely something that teams have to account for whenever he drops back or rolls out, particularly if he is in fact healthy. And then there’s the line, where almost every starter has a PFF pass blocking rating over 80, headlined by center Matthew Lee’s 89.8 in almost a thousand snaps. There’s strength up and down this line, which could be especially valuable in keeping Plumlee upright if his injuries are bothering him. The receiving corps will be missing O’Keefe, but Javon Baker was just about as productive this season, and Kobe Hudson- who led the team with 7 receiving touchdowns- will be fine sliding up to the #2 role; O’Keefe is a loss, but not a crippling one.
They’ll be doing up against a somewhat vulnerable Duke defense, sporting the #40 pass rush according to PFF, as well as the 90th-best secondary, a group that does not do much to convince me that they’ll be able to take advantage of the absence of O’Keefe and lock down the UCF wideouts. Duke’s pass rush has been led by the very solid edge-inside duo of R.J. Oben and DeWayne Carter, who garnered PFF scores of 84.9 and 81.2, respectively. Both also have a pass rush win rate of over 15%. Beyond them, there’s not much; not a single edge player with a significant snap count has a PFF grade over 60, except for Oben of course. The secondary is led by a competent 1-2 punch of top corner Brandon Johnson and safety Darius Joiner, both of whom are in a decent-sized group tied for the team lead with two picks. Johnson has been particularly impressive, allowing an NFL passer rating under 70. But like the front seven, beyond those two it’s pretty abysmal; this team is going to need to rely on star power to slow down a very strong UCF aerial assault.
Duke Rushing Offense vs. UCF Ground Defense
Duke’s best path to winning this game is dominating on the ground and controlling the football. Interestingly enough, they’ve put up the nation’s 47th-best rusher group performance as per PFF without a true lead back- four players have run for 400+ yards, and none over 700. By yardage, average per carry, and touchdowns, top dog has actually been QB Riley Leonard. But as far as backs, the #2 guy behind Leonard in most categories, and the team leader in carries, is Jordan Waters, who scored 8 times and is picking up north of 4.5 yards per carry. Perhaps part of the reason for the egalitarian success is a factor that has nothing to do with who’s touching the ball; the offensive line, which PFF sees as the 30th-best run blocking unit in the country. The anchor has by far been NFL-hopeful left tackle Graham Barton, who has earned a grade of over 85 in this area. After Barton, there’s a bit of a drop off in individual performance, but the team result is undeniable; they’ve created opportunities for an offense without a true lead back, and they’ll look to do so one more time against UCF
When it comes to defending the run, the Knights are 73rd in PFFs ranks, and on a fairly related note, the 83rd-best tackling team in the country, meaning there could be significant second-effort opportunities for Duke rushers who work hard through the first tackler. Albeit in limited time, UCF’s best ground defender has been interior lineman Matthew Alexander, but more realistically, the heart of their run prevention unit is linebacker Jason Johnson, who has a run-stop on a higher percentage of snaps than a missed tackle. Tre’Mon Morris-Brash has been a force off of the edge, as his average depth of tackle sits just over a yard. Lastly, Jarvis Ware has provided some help from above at his safety position. It’s not the strongest group, and the name of the game for UCF here will be limiting damage and forcing Duke to at least struggle enough running the football that they put the ball in the air a bit.