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Familiar foes Tulsa, UCF meet for C-USA title

(AP Photo/John F. Rhodes)

By KYLE HIGHTOWER

Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) It seems that Tulsa and Central Florida have reserved slots in the Conference USA championship game.

Since the inaugural contest in 2005, the Golden Hurricane and Knights have met for the league's football crown twice, splitting both matchups. Tulsa blew out UCF 44-27 and the Knights returning the favor 44-25 two years later.

Now, with UCF and others set to depart at season's end as part of massive realignment, it's fitting that C-USA's two most decorated teams will compete for the title one final time on Saturday.

"It is kind of funny if you look at it that way," Knights defensive lineman Victor Gray said. "It's like a farewell party and may the best man win in the end. So it's going to be interesting."

This will be the second meeting between the teams in three weeks, following Tulsa's 23-21 regular-season win in Oklahoma.

The Golden Hurricane's top-ranked rushing offense had their way with the Knights' defense in that Nov. 17 matchup, racking up 209 rushing yards while holding UCF to just 66.

Tulsa also sacked UCF quarterback Blake Bortles four times and were an efficient 8 for 17 on third down, helping keep the Knights off the field.

"They're talented across the board. They know we beat them the first time but it doesn't matter," Tulsa quarterback Cody Green said. "They will come out firing on all cylinders, trying to get the best of us this week."

With little time to make that many adjustments, both coaches aren't expecting completely new approaches.

Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship, who has yet to be part of a winner in the C-USA title game despite two appearances as an assistant in 2007 and 2008, said "tweaks" is about all there is time to do.

"They are a mirror to us in a lot of areas," Blankenship said. "I would like to be more like them in some areas. So the challenge of beating them twice is certainly there. But there are some positives that come out of the first win. Mainly that we get to play home. I think there is a reason that travelling teams statistically don't play well. We count that as at least a small edge."

Road teams are 3-4 all-time in the title game and this will be UCF's first trip as the visiting squad.

Knights coach George O'Leary said he thought his defense played well in the first game, but had too many three-and-outs on offense, a product of Tulsa's defense playing much faster than the Knights.

"There's a lot of retention in what both teams saw and did, so it should be an interesting game," he said. "But I do think when you practice, the key is your show teams have to have a lot faster pace. You have to practice that way and we've picked up this pace this week."

Along with a playing for the league championship and Liberty Bowl berth, both Tulsa and UCF owe a lot of their success this season to their respective senior classes.

UCF's seniors have a chance to win its second C-USA crown and set a new four-year victory record. They are currently tied with the 2010 class that won 32 games.

"It's important because you only get to play for a certain amount of games as a college player. And those are the games you remember," O'Leary said. "You don't remember some other games, but you do remember the championship games."

Likewise, Tulsa's seniors have won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons and have the Golden Hurricane assured of their 19th bowl appearance.

One member of that group, Tulsa defensive back Dexter McCoil, said the retention of his class throughout his career is what sticks out for him.

"There's a limited amount of us. There are like seven or eight of us out of 25 when I came in. I have a special relationship with those guys. We came in together, sweated together, grinded together. We became very good friends living together in dorms.

"It's pretty good to come in in your fourth year knowing that you still have the guys you came in with."

Knights' safety Kemal Ishmael said that even with all the preparation this week, at the end of the day, effort will rule the day.

"It's just going out there and competing now," he said. Both teams know what to expect from each other. It's just who's going to be more successful and physical on the field. They know our personnel, we know they're personnel. We know what to expect from there, what they're trying to do and accomplish.

"We just gotta go out there and compete now."

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Freelancer writer Lynn Jacobsen in Tulsa contributed to this report.

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower.

Updated November 30, 2012

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