It’s not often that you see two top-ranked teams fall to the same opponent, and Auburn is riding that unlikelihood with a return trip to Atlanta.
Auburn is currently 3-0 all-time against the University of Central Florida, with three consecutive wins at Jordan-Hare Stadium as the Tigers transitioned from Terry Bowden to Tommy Tuberville at head coach.
The Tigers are also now 6-10 (60 percent) all-time against top-ranked opponents, with a third of those wins coming from the 2017 season.
Beating the best in football takes time, and a lot of frustration, too.
In contrast to Auburn’s long and heralded football history, Central Florida has only been playing the sport since 1979. The Knights didn’t play a down in Division I until 1996, however, finishing 5-6.
Since its transition, Central Florida has consistently finished in the top 25 and is ranked inside the top 10 for the first time in program.
And it has had some notable players rolling by.
Since 1996, the Knights have produced a number of cult favorite athletes in Daunte Culpepper, Asante Samuel and Kevin Smith. Both Culpepper and Smith finished with votes for the Heisman Trophy, losing to Ricky Williams and Tim Tebow, respectively.
Now, with a matchup in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Auburn and Central Florida meet again under different circumstances.
Auburn is 10-3 with an undefeated record at home, including wins to top-ranked Georgia and Alabama to reach the SEC Championship. The Tigers, however, have all three of their losses on the road, including a loss in the rematch with the Bulldogs.
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham took time to marinate with Division I football again, and was sacked 11 times in a 14-6 loss to then-No. 2 Clemson in Death Valley.
Since then, Stidham has led the SEC in completion percentage (66.7 percent) and is 173 yards away from becoming Auburn’s first 3,000-yard passer since Dameyune Craig in 1997.
Success through the air has been a long time coming on The Plains, even with Jason Campbell and Cam Newton passing by.
The Knights, in comparison, are riding the arm of McKenzie Milton, who led the American Athletic Conference in completion percentage (69.2 percent) and finished second with touchdowns at 35.
In the backfield, Stidham is complemented with the SEC leader in touchdowns, Kerryon Johnson, and Milton with Adrian Killins Jr, who finished with 10 touchdowns and 762 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per game.
To contrast the offense, however, the Knights boast a 1,000-yard receiver in Tre’Quan Smith, who also has 10 receiving touchdowns.
Auburn’s closest to 1,000 yards is Ryan Davis, who, in its first meeting with Georgia, broke the single-season record for receptions with 69.
At head coach, Malzahn resuscitated his resume at Auburn with a conference championship berth and a seven-year, $49 million contract. Scott Frost, who led the Knights back from a winless 2015 season to 12-0 in 2017, is currently transitioning over to Nebraska with Josh Heupel being named as his replacement.
Auburn will hope to ride the success of young defensive talent and a tandem of veterans on offense, while Central Florida will look to maintain the same confidence it has all season.
And with another meeting in Atlanta, Auburn will have its third opportunity to end an undefeated season.