ATLANTA — They talked the talk in December, and they walked the walk on New Year's Day.
The Central Florida Knights capped a remarkable two-year turnaround Monday afternoon at the 50th anniversary Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, capping a 13-0 season with a 34-27 victory over Southeastern Conference West Division champion Auburn before an announced crowd of 71,109 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
UCF sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton threw for 242 yards, rushed for 116 and accounted for three touchdowns, but the Knights didn't seal the triumph until safety Antwan Collier intercepted Jarrett Stidham in the end zone with 24 seconds remaining.
"We knew that Auburn was going to be the best team we played all year," Milton said, "but we'll line up and go against anybody. I said in the spring that I would take us against anybody in the country, and I still feel that way. We played our butts off today, and we were victorious.
"This is an unreal moment, and I'm going to cherish it forever."
This was the second Peach Bowl win by a Group of Five school over a Power Five team in three years, Houston having downed Florida State 38-24 after the 2015 season. UCF went 0-12 in 2015, but Scott Frost took over and coached the Knights to a bowl game last year and a victory Monday that matched or potentially surpassed the program's 52-42 Fiesta Bowl whipping of Baylor after the 2013 season.
Frost announced last month that he was leaving UCF to take over at Nebraska, his alma mater.
"I told these guys that it's onward and upward from here for UCF," Frost said. "I expect to turn on the TV and watch them keep getting better and keep winning, and I look forward to going and hopefully turning another group of guys into the same type of family that has a love for each other like these guys do."
For Auburn, the loss soured a season that contained two November wins over No. 1 teams in the playoff rankings — Georgia and Alabama — and a No. 2 playoff ranking entering the SEC title game on Dec. 2. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn was rewarded last month with a new seven-year contract totaling $49 million, but Monday's loss dropped him to 1-4 in postseason games, including an 0-4 mark in January games.
"We won the SEC West, which I think is the toughest division in college football," Malzahn said. "Obviously, the way we finished against Georgia was disappointing, but they're a very good football team. Today we're disappointed, but you've got to give them credit.
"The future is still very bright. These seniors set the foundation for us moving forward. We didn't play or coach our best today, and that's the bottom line."
UCF sophomore running back Adrian Killins caused a stir last month by stating the Tigers didn't have the speed to match the Knights, yet the biggest difference was Milton's ability to run and Stidham's inability to escape trouble. Stidham completed 28 of 43 passes for 333 yards and a touchdown, but he was intercepted twice, fumbled once and was sacked six times.
"We just didn't execute," Stidham said. "That is really what it comes down to. We didn't really make a whole lot of adjustments at halftime. What we were doing was going to work if we would have just executed the right way."
Stidham's first interception was returned 45 yards for a touchdown by inside linebacker Chequan Burkett with 5:56 remaining for a 34-20 Knights lead.
Auburn trailed 13-6 at halftime, but Noah Igbinoghene opened the second half with a 72-yard kickoff return, and a 26-yard touchdown pass from Stidham to Will Hastings two plays later tied the game at 13. After forcing UCF to punt, the Tigers moved 82 yards in 10 plays, taking a 20-13 lead on Kerryon Johnson's 4-yard touchdown run.
That would be Auburn's lone surge of the game, as UCF tied it 20-20 with 1:30 left in the third quarter on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Milton to Otis Anderson. Milton converted a third-and-8 and a third-and-4 on the drive.
An 8-yard Milton touchdown pass to Dredrick Snelson with 11:36 remaining put the Knights up 27-20. After Burkett's touchdown established a two-touchdown lead, Auburn pulled within 34-27 on Eli Stove's 7-yard touchdown run and was within reach in the end due to UCF kicker Matthew Wright having a 25-yard field-goal attempt blocked by Derrick Brown with 6:58 left and missing from 38 yards out with 2:18 remaining.
"Our first half was very uncharacteristic," Malzahn said. "We had one of our worst halves that we've had all year, and that was disappointing. I think we were sacked five times on offense. We had six penalties. That was very uncharacteristic."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
This story was updated at 12:32 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018.