Good Knight, Cinderella.
Midnight struck at 4:50 p.m. ET Tuesday, when LSU’s JaCoby Stevens intercepted a tipped pass, sealing an 8-point victory over UCF that felt more like a 28-point blowout everywhere except the scoreboard.
Credit UCF for hanging around and making a few plays. Credit UCF for continuing to believe.
But realize that LSU, which finished third in the SEC West with a 5-3 league mark and was never in the Playoff hunt, ended the Knights’ ballyhooed 25-game winning streak by dominating the trenches and did so without 8 starters on defense. Thanks to injuries, disinterest and bone-headed ejections, the Tigers had a converted receiver playing cornerback in the second half.
UCF fans no doubt will point to the scoreboard as proof their Knights can, indeed, go toe-to-toe with the SEC. The margin was only 8, after all. They like their make-believe in Orlando, but there’s no denying that math.
The reality was LSU gifted UCF 17 of its first 24 points — 7 on a pick-6 initially created by an uncalled pass interference infraction, 7 more on a last-second TD pass to close the first half and 3 after fumbling a punt it should have let bounce.
Throw in two red-zone meltdowns on offense that produced only two field goals instead of two touchdowns, and, yes, it’s accurate and fair to say LSU dominated everything but the scoreboard. I noted that in real time, shortly after the muffed punt.
LSU has done more to keep this close than UCF has. If the scoreboard accurately reflected what was happening at the LOS, it would be 52-10 at this point.
— Chris Wright (@FilmRoomEditor) January 1, 2019
So what did the result mean, right? That’s what everybody came to the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., to answer.
Were the Knights Playoff material? Were they SEC-worthy, one of the 4 best teams in the country? Was their second consecutive unbeaten regular season the product of unrelenting skill or a questionable mid-major schedule?
LSU supplied the answers. No. No. And, obviously, it’s the schedule, stupid.
LSU amassed 555 total yards — just 18 shy of matching its season high and only the third time all year the Tigers topped 500. This same offense mustered only 196 yards against Alabama, couldn’t get to 250 against Mississippi State and failed to reach 400 against Florida and Auburn.
It scored 40 points, more than it did in regulation against any SEC team except Ole Miss, which never would be confused as a Playoff threat.
Outside of its red-zone breakdowns, LSU’s offense toyed with UCF.
LSU’s offensive line, maligned at times against SEC fronts, imposed its will against the smaller Knights. They pushed the pile, allowing Nick Brossette to top 100 yards for just the third time this season, and first since Week 2.
They kept Joe Burrow clean, allowing him to repeatedly step up in the pocket and throw for a career-high 394 yards and 4 touchdowns.
LSU’s depleted defense essentially shut down the Knights’ propped up offense. UCF entered averaging 44.2 points per game, most in the AAC, fifth in the country. Remember, they scored 56, matching a season-high, in their first full game without injured quarterback McKenzie Milton in the AAC title game.
Unstoppable. Until they were.
They scored 32 against LSU, one point more than its season-low. It bears repeating that half of those 32 points were gifts against a depleted unit.
Down 9 starters. 2 All Americans on defense …. now let’s get back to talking about Power 5 football
— Booger (@ESPNBooger) January 1, 2019
This game was always going to be decided in the trenches. I made that point in a November piece that analyzed the Knights’ roster. The conclusion: They look a lot like Vanderbilt, plenty of skill, not enough elite linemen to make a dent in this league.
Tuesday, they got pushed around a lot like Vanderbilt tends to against better SEC teams, too.
And as analyst Brian Griese astutely noted while discussing UCF’s Playoff case, LSU’s offensive line isn’t among the nation’s elite. He finished the thought by asking what would Alabama or Clemson or Georgia do to the Knights, already knowing the answer.
When Steve Levy suggested that UCF should target Gabriel Davis on every play because he had been open on every play, Griese again stepped in and provided perspective. Davis wouldn’t be open if Greedy Williams were playing.
That was the background music to the Fiesta Bowl.
Whatever rooting interest you might have, there’s no avoiding the stark reality that LSU’s backups turned UCF’s fanciful, fictitious national championship parade into a parody.
They also saved us all from another long offseason of Twitter campaigns, bogus billboards and diamond-encrusted rings.
For that, we all owe the Tigers a great deal of gratitude.
Maybe now I can enjoy a beer in Florida without ever again having to explain why the Knights aren’t built like a Playoff team and never will be.
I’ll toast to that alone.