By FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Unbeaten UCF updated its sparkling resume with an impressive come-from-behind victory over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game.
Now the seventh-ranked Knights (12-0, No. 8 CFP), who proclaimed themselves national champions last January after finishing as the only undefeated team in the FBS, will see if repeating as AAC champs and having the nation’s-longest winning streak are good enough to get them into the College Football Playoff.
‘There’s been a national conversation for 11 months since UCF won the Peach Bowl and claimed a championship,” athletic director Danny White said after Saturday’s 56-41 victory over Memphis. “Our football team has now won 25 straight games. They deserve to be in this playoff, and I hope that’s a decision that’s made (Sunday),” White added. “If that does not occur, I think that’s another pretty glaring example a four-team playoff is not adequate for the postseason.”
Darriel Mack Jr. shrugged off two early turnovers to rush for four second-half touchdowns and rally the Knights past the Tigers (8-5) for the fourth time in two seasons.
With the red-shirt freshman filling in for injured quarterback McKenzie Milton, UCF amassed 698 yards total offense and tightened defensively after shaky start to limit Memphis to three points after halftime.
Mack completed 19 of 27 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. He began the Knights’ comeback from a 17-point halftime deficit with a 54-yard TD pass to Otis Anderson and finished the Tigers off with scoring runs of 2, 2, and 5 yards in the fourth quarter.
“Everybody has confidence in (Mack). You saw that tonight,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “He has a lot of confidence in himself, too.”
Greg McCrae rushed for 206 yards and one TD for the Knights, who beat the Tigers 62-55 in the 2017 AAC title game and rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit to win 31-30 at Memphis during the regular season.
This time, UCF trailed 38-21 at halftime before scoring touchdowns on five straight possessions in the second half.
“Our locker room was extremely calm at halftime. There was a great belief because this was a situation we’ve already been in with Memphis the first time around. I don’t think anyone blinked an eye.”
Darrell Henderson scored on runs of 62, 12 and 82 yards and also throw a 4-yard TD pass to help Memphis (8-5) build its big halftime lead.
But the nation’s second-leading rusher only gained 3 yards on six carries in the second half, finishing with 210 yards on 16 carries.
“This was a learning experience for us,” Henderson said.
“”It was a hard fought matchup between two really good football teams. They made more plays than we did in the second half,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. “I’m proud of our football team and proud of the way these guys competed this season to help us get to the game. Obviously we’re disappointed in the outcome. Whenever you come up short it hurts everybody.”
Mack lost two first-quarter fumbles, setting up Henderson’s second touchdown and a field goal. The young quarterback making his second start of the year also fumbled into the end zone from inside the Memphis 1, however teammate Michael Colubiale bailed him out by recovering for a UCF touchdown in the second quarter.
Milton was injured at South Florida in the Knights’ regular- season finale. He was released from a Tampa hospital and returned home to Orlando, where he watched Saturday night’s game on television with his parents.
“I just got off the phone with him before I came in here,” Mack said during a postgame news conference. “He told me he loved me and stuff like that. We’ll have a longer conversation when I get out of here and things die down.”
UCF has beaten Memphis 13 consecutive times since losing the initial meeting between the teams in 1990.
Memphis: The Tigers scored on their first five possessions to build a 31-14 lead but once again couldn’t to finish the job against the Knights, who’ve beaten them four times in two seasons. Brady White was effective throwing the ball until UCF finally stopped Henderson and Patrick Taylor, who scored on a 70-yard run and finished with 118 rushing, from running wild. White was 17 of 29 for 178 yards and one interception.
UCF: The defense’s inability to stop the run set the tone early, and Mack’s early mistakes dug the Knights into an even deeper hole. Despite the early turnovers, Mack remained poised and the Knights finally got into a rhythm offensively in the third quarter.
Despite moving up one spot in the latest CFP rankings to No. 8, the Knights remain a long shot to leapfrog teams ahead of them to get into the playoff. A New Year’s Six bowl bid is an almost certainty, though.
“Anyone who has been involved in college football should understand how difficult it is to do what these individuals have done over the last 24 months,” said Heupel, referring to UCF’s 25-game winning streak.
“Whoever is on the playoff committee, they aren’t watching enough football if they don’t respect what we just did,” Dredrick Snelson, one of two UCF players with 100-plus yards receiving said. “They should see the adversity we overcame and watch a team that plays with heart. … We can play with anybody. They just need to give us a chance.”
Memphis: Tigers won four of last five games and await bowl invitation.
UCF: A second straight New Year’s Six bowl appearance is likely.
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