DALLAS — It was not the easiest path to the outright American Athletic Conference championship, but No. 15 UCF has rarely done things the comfortable way this season.
The Knights needed three fourth-down stands and an interception in the fourth quarter on Saturday to hold on for a 17-13 win over SMU in frigid 20-degree temperatures at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. SMU officials announced a crowd of 12,589, but closer to 1,000 fans used free tickets to attend the game in blustery weather.
No one would call it pretty, but the Knights did the job nonetheless. UCF navigated the conference season unbeaten.
Next stop: a Bowl Championship Series game.
"It's unbelievable," UCF safety Brandon Alexander said. "Everybody is excited. I know a lot of people haven't won a championship in their life, me being one of them, but it's a great feeling. … Everybody goes through adversity, and we've been doing that all season. But we always overcome it."
UCF now awaits its BCS fate, learning today whether it will play in the Fiesta Bowl, as expected, or the Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl.
The most likely destination is Glendale, Ariz., to meet Big 12 champion Baylor on Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl.
"I think any BCS bowl is great," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "And I'm happy to be at any one that they want to take us to."
For all that has gone wrong defensively this season for the Knights — the truckloads of yards allowed and head-shaking third downs converted by opposing teams — UCF's inexperienced unit has found a way to make big plays when it is needed most.
The Knights' rag-tag, patched-together defense did it again to hold off the Mustangs, ending SMU's season short of a bowl game for the first time in five years.
UCF got three huge fourth-down stops and an interception from junior safety Clayton Geathers in the fourth quarter, enough to protect the 17-13 lead.
The first fourth-down stop came on the opening drive of the final quarter. SMU's Neal Burcham threw an incomplete pass at the Knights' 43-yard line after UCF shut down his first two options.
Then, the Knights held on fourth and 1 from their own 40-yard line, with Geathers tackling Burcham just shy of the marker. Burcham's head hit the turf on the run and the redshirt freshman left with a concussion.
That forced SMU to use its third-string quarterback, Garrett Krstich. Starter Garrett Gilbert missed the game due to a sprained knee.
"This is what coach talks about all the time, having resiliency," UCF junior linebacker Terrance Plummer said.
The wintry blast that virtually shut down the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Friday prompted officials to offer free admission. It didn't help — there was virtually nobody sitting in the stands behind UCF's bench.
Connecticut 45, Memphis 10: Casey Cochran threw for 461 yards, a school record, and four touchdowns and receiver Geremy Davis had a school-record 15 catches for 207 yards and a score as the host Huskies closed with their third straight win after an 0-9 start. Also, Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel says face-to-face interviews for a new coach will begin today, but he would not say whether interim coach T.J. Weist, who took over after Paul Pasqualoni was fired, would get an interview. And Connecticut junior linebacker Yawin Smallwood announced he will leave school for the NFL.