Inside the underrated UCF-USF rivalry

They want Bama? For now, UCF is concentrating on USF this week. Corey Perrine/Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is a pretty important game between two intense rivals happening in Florida this weekend, one with serious conference and College Football Playoff implications.

That's right: USF vs. UCF (3:30 p.m. ET Friday on ABC) has taken the spotlight from the more nationally known teams farther north, becoming the hottest ticket in the state. While the Florida State-Florida matchup features two losing teams for just the second time in series history, UCF (10-0) and USF (9-1) will take center stage in front of a sold-out crowd Friday afternoon in Orlando.

The ramifications are straightforward: The winner clinches a spot in the American Athletic Conference championship game against Memphis the following week. The winner of the conference championship game in all likelihood will secure the Group of 5 spot in a New Year's Six bowl game.

To say everyone expected to get to this point in exactly this way is a slight understatement. USF was chosen on the conference's media day to win the East Division with every single first-place vote and was a preseason top-25 team. UCF was picked to finish second in the division and had zero buzz nationally when the season began.

None of this escaped the UCF players. They heard all the talk about USF being the favorite to finish as the best Group of 5 team. They heard all the praise lavished on the hire of new USF coach Charlie Strong. They heard ... well, not much in the way of praise coming their way, despite a turnaround season in 2016 that featured a bowl appearance.

"When they came out with those rankings and all those stats and things, we really just laughed, and we just looked at each other and were like, 'OK, it's time to shock the world,'" UCF tight end Jordan Akins said. "We knew what we were going to do, we put our minds to it, and we've been executing, and we're definitely looking forward to getting this win."

For those unfamiliar with what has been a regional in-state rivalry, roughly 100 miles separate USF in Tampa and UCF in Orlando along Interstate 4, the highway that runs across the middle of Florida. The rivalry is young in relative terms -- the teams first played each other in 2005 -- but the passion, intensity and will to win are the same as in any other.

So is the quest for one-upmanship, as the race to elevate the programs through conference affiliation drove a wedge between the two and increased the enmity. Despite a shorter football history, USF joined a bigger conference first when it got into the Big East in 2005. After winning the first four games in the series by an average of 20 points, the Bulls decided to stop playing UCF so they could schedule a more competitive opponent.

You can imagine how that played out in Orlando.

Despite several attempts to rekindle the series, they didn't resume playing until 2013, when they both became members of the American Athletic Conference. The winner gets the War on I-4 Trophy, with a detachable replica of the highway sign.

In that first season in the American, UCF won the conference and the Fiesta Bowl in what stands as the best season either school has put together. Yet what is remarkable, despite both being labeled "sleeping giants" for their sweeping potential, is that these teams have never been this good at the same time.

This season marks the first in their brief history in which they have combined for just one loss going into their regular-season finale. There will be more history no matter who wins Friday: UCF would clinch the first perfect regular season in school history with a win, while USF would clinch its first spot in the conference championship game with a win.

USF has won the previous two in the series. The 48-31 USF victory last season left many on the UCF side with extra distaste after the Bulls scored a touchdown with 11 seconds left in what many took to be now-Oregon coach Willie Taggart running up the score.

"I don't need any gimmicks or grudges to get our guys motivated," UCF coach Scott Frost said. "I've been ahead as a coach of teams a lot of times in the fourth quarter, and there's a right way to handle things and a wrong way. We're always going to handle it the right way here. But like I said, our players are going to be excited to play this game regardless of what happened last year or 10 years ago."

So are the USF players, who still have a chance to achieve all their goals, despite an upset loss to Houston earlier this season. When the season began, USF had much better odds to get to this point undefeated than UCF.

"It's been like this each and every week with this football team," Strong said at his weekly news conference. "Even when we come into preseason, everybody says, 'You're going to go undefeated. You're going to win the conference.' And then each week, each game the buildup is there, so now everybody talks about, 'Hey, the War on I-4. Here it is now. They all understand it.'"