UCF QB says Knights should be national champions after defeating Auburn in Peach Bowl

UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton stood next to his departing head coach Scott Frost, shrouded in gold and white confetti on the Peach Bowl podium.

Much like his coach once did years ago, Milton made the case his team deserved to be known as national champions. Milton delivered his endorsement following No. 12 UCF’s convincing 34-27 upset victory over No. 7 Auburn before a sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd of 71,109 — with many of them wearing black and gold.

The Tigers, who dropped to 10-4, previously beat No. 1 teams and College Football Playoff semifinalists Georgia and Alabama.

UCF (13-0) finished the season as the only undefeated college football team in the country.

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“I said on the podium, you can go ahead and cancel the playoffs,” Milton later said, suggesting the Knights did enough to win the national title. “I’m not changing my mind.”

That won’t happen, of course. But UCF players feel like they might have opened some minds about the strength of schools like UCF and others from Group of 5 conferences.

Milton said he lost count of how many times the Knights had been counted out by so many people. But for a moment during the Peach Bowl, it appeared he lost himself to some early nerves as his usually reliable passes hit a little too early or sailed a little too long, leading to some uncharacteristic drops by his receivers.

By halftime, Milton was just 3-of-17 passing with no touchdowns and just 30 yards. He finished the game as the offensive MVP with 242 passing yards, two timely touchdown tosses to Dredrick Snelson and Otis Anderson Jr. and no interceptions.

“He’s a game-changer,” UCF offensive lineman Chavis Dickey said. “Even when he’s not completing passes, he’s gonna find a way to help us score because he’s one of the best players in the country — probably the best player in the country.”

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Milton opened up the game in the second half with his feet. He challenged Auburn’s defense with runs up the middle, threw on the run and found the playmakers.

But for all of Milton’s fancy footwork, UCF’s defense once again kept the Knights in the game while the offense struggled to get going.

With more than a minute to go before halftime, senior defensive lineman Tony Guerad secured the Knights’ fifth sack — tying a season high. UCF finished the game with a six sacks. Seniors Shaquem Griffin and Jamiyus Pittman had 1.5 sacks apiece.

“We heard someone say that we weren’t supposed to be on the same field as Auburn,” Pittman said. “I wonder how that dude feels. I’d love to talk to him.”

UCF almost carried the momentum from start to finish, leading 13-6 at halftime, with Matt Wright’s 45-yard field goal seconds before the break canceling out a 46-yard field goal by Auburn’s Daniel Carlson.

But Auburn didn’t exactly lie down. The Tigers punched back quick after halftime with back-to-back scoring drives to take the lead at 20-13. Milton struggled to get the offense going, but the defense responded with a three-and-out, spurring a critical scoring drive for the Knights.

Throwing mostly on the run, Milton connected with his bigger receivers Jordan Akins and Tre’Quan Smith for gains of 26 and 19 yards to set up Anderson’s 12-yard touchdown that helped tie the game.

That’s when UCF’s defense really turned up the heat as Pittman clawed up the middle to hit Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham with another sack, this one for a loss of seven yards.

Milton helped make good on the defense’s effort. Once he found Snelson in the end zone for another touchdown pass, the Knights never looked back.

With just under six minutes of play to go, Auburn fans started to exit the stadium.

“When the Auburn fans started leaving, we knew that [Auburn] had no hope left,” UCF defensive back Richie Grant said.

Even after the Tigers cut UCF’s lead in the final four minutes, players remained confident they would get the victory. After all, they survived close games before, including with a shootout against rival USF and double overtime American Athletic Conference title game win against Memphis.

How hard could finishing an undefeated season against a top-10 team in the Peach Bowl be?

“We knew Auburn was going to be the best team we played all year and we’ll line up and go against anybody,” Milton said. “I said in the spring time, I’ll take our ball club against anybody in the country, and I still feel that way.”

Email Shannon Green at sgreen@orlandosentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @osknights and like the Sentinel’s UCF Facebook page to get all the latest updates on the Knights.

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