Auburn Tigers face yet another highly touted, undefeated team in the Peach Bowl

Auburn Tigers face yet another highly touted, undefeated team in the Peach Bowl
Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn talks to the press on Wednesday after the Tigers' arrival in Atlanta for practice in advance of their Peach Bowl contest with UCF on New Year's Day. “You can tell this team’s good,” he said of the undefeated Knights. (Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics)

Auburn knocked off a pair of top-ranked, undefeated teams during the 2017 football season. The Tigers beat the Georgia Bulldogs 40-17 and topped the Alabama Crimson Tide 26-14.

In Monday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the Tigers will square off against another top unbeaten squad in Central Florida, the highest-ranked Group of 5 team in the nation.

The 2018 bowl game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium pits the No. 7 Tigers against the No. 10 and 12-0 Knights. The 11:30 a.m. game on ESPN is Central Florida’s chance to make a statement for the teams that are not usually considered on par with the big boys of college football.

Meanwhile, Auburn is looking to end a season with 11 wins for just the seventh time in program history.

Central Florida leading rusher Andrian Killins gave the Southeastern Conference runners-up some bulletin board material when he talked with Shannon Green of the Orlando Sentinel, saying the “SEC doesn’t have a lot of speed.”

“Auburn hasn’t seen any speed the way we have here,” Killins said. “I would say they’re in for a rude awakening because UCF football, we’re UCFast and UCFierce. Defense will put 11 hats to the ball fast and furious and offense, we have a lot of guys that can go up and get the ball and make you miss and make good plays.”

Is Johnson healthy?

While the Knights’ top rusher raised some eyebrows, all Auburn eyes are on the leading rusher in the SEC, the Tigers’ Kerryon Johnson, who suffered shoulder and rib injuries in Auburn’s victory over Alabama and SEC Championship Game loss to Georgia.

In practice this week at Georgia Tech, Johnson was reportedly seen at practice in full pads and not wearing a noncontact jersey. UCF coach Scott Frost said the SEC’s offensive MVP has earned his attention.

“They have a bunch of guys who are going to be playing on Sundays, and I think Johnson is one of them,” said Frost, who Thursday was named coach of the year by The Associated Press and earlier this month accepted the head coaching job at Nebraska. “He’s a special player. We actually watched him as we were getting ready for Arkansas State a year ago. He made plays that were amazing. We have our work cut out for us.”

The last time the Knights were in a New Year’s Six game was their 52-42 Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor in 2014. This year, UCF boasts the No. 7 passing offense in the country with 339.3 yards per game and the No. 5 overall offense at 540.4 per contest.

“You can tell this team’s good,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who was also in the running for coach of the year. “They’ve earned the right to get to this bowl game, which is one of the best there is. We have a lot of respect for them.”

The Tigers counter with the No. 13 total defense in the land, yielding 312.3 yards per game and the No. 9 scoring defense, allowing 17.3 points per game.

Another Atlanta sellout

While the outcome of the game may be in question, there’s no doubt that organizers of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl are the big winners with a sold-out stadium.

The Georgia Dome had become Alabama’s “dome away from home” the past several seasons. Alabama played Clemson in the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in the Georgia Dome in 2008 and the Tide has been there four times for that event.

Alabama won the 2017 SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome before returning to the same venue for the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl national semifinal. The Crimson Tide went on to face Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game that opened the 2017 season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Now Auburn is making itself at home in Atlanta after falling 28-7 to Georgia in the SEC Championship game there and reaching the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Tigers will also play in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game to open the 2018 season against Washington.

“This will be our 18th sellout out of 20 years,” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. “It’ll be packed out inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 1st at 12:30 (Eastern). It’ll be another electric crowd.”

Hotel rooms will become scarce as New Year’s draws near.

“We see a big pickup in the official Auburn hotel, which is the Marriott Marquis,” Stokan said. “They’ll be sold out on Saturday and Sunday. The Auburn people will be flocking to Atlanta to take in the restaurants and the College Football Hall of Fame, to shop and all the other festivities that go along with the bowl game.”

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