Central Florida made the most of its one-year seat at the table, parlaying a short stint inside an automatic-qualifying conference into a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Those were a 60 minutes to savor: Baylor might not have been ready, but UCF was.
The gamble paid off. In 2012, the NCAA Committee on Infractions handed down a number of penalties on UCF’s athletic department as a result of recruiting violations, charging the university with a lack of institutional control.
UCF accepted the basketball penalties but refused to accept the one-year postseason ban levied on its football program. The Knights appealed the ban in September 2012, allowing the program to participate fully in its final season as a member of Conference USA, but the appeal came with a cost:
Had UCF lost the appeal ? set to be issued last spring ? the Knights would not have been eligible for the postseason as a first-year member of the American Athletic Conference, losing the program’s one and only chance of earning an at-large Bowl Championship Series bid.
Kenny Rogers would be proud. UCF fought the law and the law lost, essentially, allowing the Knights to create the most impressive, satisfying and productive season in program history.
LAST YEAR’S PREDICTION:
But there are seven clear wins on this schedule and a strong likelihood for eight, and perhaps even an upset or two if the defense finds its form before September. An 8-4 season with losses to Penn State, Carolina and Louisville wouldn’t be overly impressive, but it’d be a fine start as UCF slides into a new league.
In a nutshell: To those wondering if an undefeated UCF would have met Florida State for the national championship: no. Of course not. Though ? and this would have been amazing ? I do think an undefeated UCF and an undefeated Florida State should have met one week after Pasadena and Glendale, perhaps at a neutral site in Florida, to decide the state championship. After the way this team dismantled Baylor, a team that took UCF far too lightly, there’s little reason to think the Knights couldn’t have given FSU a game ? for a quarter or so, at least, using the same underdog, overlooked, underrated mentality that provided the impetus for the finest season in program history. Twelve wins, one loss, the latter by a field goal, and the sort of hold-onto-your-seat wins only a toughened and veteran team could’ve managed.
High point: For the regular season, let’s call it a tie between Penn State and Louisville ? the latter probably stands ahead, due to the American race. Overall, however, the pick is clearly Baylor.
Low point: South Carolina.
Tidbit: UCF was the youngest program and youngest university to reach a BCS bowl. The school was founded in 1963, 31 years after Boise State, 38 years after Miami (Fla.) and 58 years after Hawaii opened its doors. The football program was christened in 1979; Florida State, which played its first game in 1947, is the closest to UCF. In terms of years on the Football Bowl Subdivision level, only Boise State made it quicker: It took Boise 11 years to reach the BCS to UCF’s 18 years.
Tidbit (streak edition): UCF enters 2014 on the third-longest active winning streak in the FBS. First is FSU, which has won 16 in a row, followed by Michigan State with 10 and the Knights at nine.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
1. Jack Kerouac
2. Delta Burke
3. Wesley Snipes
4. Warren Sapp
5. Johnny Damon
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The change at quarterback will draw headlines, but first things first: UCF needs to address its changing cast up front. Three starters are gone, each now competing for spots on the next level; that leaves UCF a little unsteady among the starting lineup, though the return of most of last year’s second tier bodes well for overall depth. The star of the bunch is senior Torrian Wilson, who dabbled at guard during the spring but should spend his final season at left tackle ? and it would be just stupid to play him elsewhere, given his experience at tackle and the priority placed on the position. He’s joined by a second returning starter, center Joey Grant, who took well to the middle of the line after starting his career on defense. The rest of the line has holes: Michael Campbell might be ill fit at left guard, meaning Wilson could slide inside out of necessity, and right tackle Chester Brown is another former defender new to the offensive side of the ball. Right guard does seem secure with junior Tarik Cook, however.
In terms of the combination of talent, experience and proven production, UCF’s receiver corps stands as the deepest unit on the offensive side of the ball. The Knights lose Jeff Godfrey, true, but return four of last year’s top five: Rannell Hall (57 receptions for 886 yards), Breshad Perriman (39 for 811), Josh Reese (21 for 252) and J.J. Worton (47 for 721) ? three seniors, with Perriman a junior. UCF will also have use of former UAB transfer Jackie Williams, one of the top receivers in the Blazers’ history, set to contribute after a redshirt season. That this group is so senior-heavy will make it tough for underclassmen to crack into the rotation, though UCF would be wise to give sophomore Taylor Oldham and a few impressive true freshmen the chance to work with the first-team offense. The Knights don’t rely heavily on the tight end for pass-game production ? Justin Tukes will do some, though not much ? but will use the position to open up lanes on the ground.
William Stanback’s strong close to his debut campaign sets up the potential for a banner sophomore season. He’ll get the keys: Stanback (443 yards) will be the Knights’ go-to back on every down, thanks to a growing strength as a pass-catcher, and should ? if healthy ? challenge for the 1,000-yard mark and all-conference honors. Though Stanback will do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, strong springs from sophomore Dontravious Wilson and Micah Reed assure at least some semblance of a by-committee approach ? Stanback leading, of course, but Wilson and Reed chipping in as reserves.
Defense: This defense is going to knock heads in the American. No other defense in the league can tout the total package: UCF is deep up front, star-studded at linebacker and positively loaded in the secondary, giving the entire unit an unparalleled sense of experience, production and confidence heading into the regular season. Flaws, if unearthed, are of the flimsy variety: UCF might need to cobble together more push from the interior of the line, for example, but that shouldn’t be a substantial issue; the pass rush need to solidify a third-down rotation, but that’s not a major concern. There are really no concerns at all, to be honest.
The secondary’s brimming with experience. Here’s the funny thing: Three seniors lead the way, yes, but the best of the bunch might be a sophomore. That would be cornerback Jacoby Glenn (52 tackles), a ball-hawking, wise-beyond-his-year underclassmen who quickly asserted himself as one of the American’s best at the position ? and better yet, he’s improving every day. Glenn’s joined on the outside by senior Jordan Ozerities (59 tackles), who acquitted himself extremely well in last season’s move to the starting lineup. Fellow seniors Clayton Geathers (100 tackles) and Brandon Alexander (63 tackles, 3 interceptions) are terrific along the back end, supplying support against the run ? Geathers’ specialty ? and keeping a lid on explosive plays. The Knights have another six defensive backs with game experience ? and nine options altogether, counting three freshmen ? so I’d say this clearly, unequivocally and quite obviously the best secondary in the American.
And the front seven’s nothing to sniff at. The line has options but seems a bit unsettled, though the Knights should feel confident in what as many as eight or nine defenders can achieve in specific roles. The biggest concern heading into fall camp is at tackle, where E.J. Dunston will be difficult to replace. Here more than anywhere else, look for the Knights to call on bodies: Demetris Anderson’s a clear starter, but UCF could chose to rotate Jaryl Mamea, Tony Guerad, Rob Sauvao and JUCO transfer Lance McDowell in an effort to find the best combination. You can see a similar approach at end, where the Knights could chose to team starter Thomas Niles (30 tackles, 8.0 for loss) with a combination of junior Miles Pace, sophomore Seyvon Lowery, sophomore Luke Adams and junior Deion Green ? the latter a could-be menace who must remain healthy. The situation at end is better than inside, but not by much: UCF’s line is one of the league’s best.
Continuing a theme: UCF also touts one of the league’s top linebacker corps. It’s a group paced by senior middle linebacker Terrance Plummer (110 tackles, 8.5 for loss), perhaps the American’s top defender. Joining Plummer on the outside is fellow senior Troy Gray (62 tackles, 2 interceptions), who took well to a full-time role in 2013 and should take another step forward in his final season. Continuing another theme: UCF has options at the final starting spot. I count as many as five, beginning with sophomore Justin McDonald (32 tackles) and seniors Michael Easton and Willie Mitchell. The wildcards could be sophomore Chequan Burkett, who earned an early start last fall before going down to injury, and JUCO transfer Errol Clarke, though he seems best suited for the middle. One final theme: UCF’s defense is terrific.
Special teams: The Knights are simply outstanding on special teams. The entire group returns: Shawn Moffitt is back at kicker, Caleb Houston at punter, Scott Teal at snapper, Hall on kickoffs and Worton on punts. While Moffitt may take a slight step back in 2014 ? it’ll be hard to match what he achieved last season ? he remains among the most reliable kickers outside the major-conference landscape. In all, the Knights would hold the advantage against the majority of this year’s schedule.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Let’s put sophomore Justin Holman atop the two-deep but do so tentatively, knowing that Holman could have secured the starting job ? or come within a whisker of doing so ? during the spring but didn’t, extending this competition into August. Let’s say this instead: Holman leads, but it’s too early to take Boise State transfer Nick Patti and redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo out of the race, and it may even be too early to designate true freshman Tyler Harris for a redshirt season. Patti sits a touch behind the curve due to his summertime arrival, but remember that he spent the spring along the Knights’ sidelines, chewing up the offense from a distance ? so he’s ready, I’d say. He’s also perhaps the most physically gifted option of the bunch, a quarterback who competed twice for snaps under Chris Petersen but failed to crack the Broncos’ rotation. In my mind, and even though it’s an asset, Holman’s game-day experience is so limited ? one game, essentially, against Connecticut ? that I wouldn’t be surprised if any one of the four grabs the starting job; I also wouldn’t be surprised if multiple players started during the season. Having said that: Holman should be the guy for the opener.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
East Carolina: It’s either Houston or ECU, because UCF should make defending last year’s American crown its top priority. Also important: starting strong. The schedule’s a beast early, sending UCF to Ireland to take on Penn State, to Missouri to battle the Tigers and to Houston to match with the Cougars before coming back home on Oct. 9 to host Brigham Young. From there, however, the schedule turns smooth.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: UCF has the best defense in the American and just enough offense to defend its conference title, though the combination of this schedule and the projected decline offensively should prevent another season spent inside the top 15. Part of the issue is the schedule, to be honest: UCF must hit the ground running or risk the specter of a 1-4 start ? losing to Penn State, Missouri, Houston and BYU. That seems like a stretch, dropping four of five out of the gate; going 2-3, however, seems possible. But even a 2-3 start ? if one win comes against Houston ? still leaves the Knights in position to run crazy through the American, perhaps losing just once and taking home a second league crown in as many years.
I love the defense. The secondary’s simply outstanding: Some teams have an equal top four ? not many outside the major-conference level ? but none have this level of starters plus reserves, giving the Knights simply ridiculous depth and production. The front seven has to settle on a concrete starting lineup, but let’s remember that UCF has the bodies to simply roll with the hot hands, starting Pace, Anderson, Plummer and Gray while rotating players in and out of the lineup at tackle, end and outside linebacker. In all, the Knights’ defense is the best in the American and the reason why this team must be considered the preseason favorite.
The offense has its issues. One is the quarterback position: UCF’s going to decline here, obviously, even if Holman ? or Patti, or DiNovo ? takes well to the starting role. A second issue is backfield depth behind Stanback, though those two reserves are fresh off a strong spring. The line might be the biggest concern, particularly if the three new faces struggle against quality competition in September and October. Here’s the safe bet: UCF wins eight or nine games during the regular season, defends the American title but doesn’t make another charge onto the national stage. It’ll still be a successful season.
Dream season: UCF goes undefeated during the regular season.
Nightmare season: The Knights lose to Penn State, Houston, BYU, Missouri, ECU and Tulsa, ending the year in fifth in the American.
Who’s No. 29? This program’s home field is named after a company whose headquarters are located about 16 miles from the stadium.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014
College Football Countdown | No. 30: Central Florida – USA TODAY