Coming off an incredible season where they went undefeated and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, Central Florida looks like they might drop off slightly. Scott Frost has gone home to Nebraska and defensive leader Shaquem Griffin left in the draft. The pieces are still there for a run, and new head coach Josh Heupel should help the offense stay at an elite level. An argument could’ve been made for the Knights to make the playoff, but the committee shut that down when they put a three-loss Mississippi State team ahead of UCF in one of the rankings. Whether or not they should’ve been in is for a different discussion, as we’re going to take a look and see if they can make a similar run this season.
One of the best things you can give a new head coach is a great quarterback, and McKenzie Milton was definitely great last season. He completed 67% of his passes, and against top 25 teams, he had a passer rating of 161.7. He loses a few receiving weapons in Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins, but Otis Anderson contributed as both a receiver and runner, and could be a factor in 2018. Cam Stewart, Marlon Williams, and Gabriel Davis will be returning to a talented receiving corps. Adrian Killins returns as running back after averaging over six yards per carry and Taj McGowan provides an almost fullback option for UCF when they need it. Five offensive linemen return as well, three of them being starters on a line that only allowed 13 sacks. To put it simply, this team is loaded with offensive talent. Combine that with Mike Leach protege Heupel as both the head coach and offensive coordinator, and this team could easily put up 40 a game.
Perhaps the best two players from last year’s team, Griffin and Mike Hughes, left in the recent NFL Draft, but only three other starters are gone from this defense, so new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon will have some pieces to work with. They were solid against the run in 2017, and should be again, but the passing game is where they might have some issues. Hughes is the only one who left from the secondary, and the ones who remain, led by senior Tre Neal, should be more consistent. Alabama transfer Aaron Robinson could help them get even better if he can start. Linebacker should be a solid position for them, led by second leading tackler Chequan Burkett, but the line will need to step up. Griffin and former DE Jamiyus Thomas combined for almost half of the team’s sacks last year, so we’ll wait to see who can pressure the opposing offense this season.
UCF is current favored to win all of their games this season. They have a few tough games, mainly at North Carolina and fellow Group of Five up and comers Florida Atlantic. Visits from Pitt and Navy are the notable games in Orlando, and the home field advantage should be a huge help. They survived scares against SMU, Memphis and rivals USF last season, but will need to go on the road to beat both of them now, which they should still have enough talent to do.
This team can almost be compared to last season’s Oklahoma: A legitimate Heisman candidate at QB, an explosive offense that can score on anybody, and a defense that isn’t great, but doesn’t need to be. Anything less than another New Year’s Six bowl might be seen as a disappointment.
Prediction: 12-1, AAC Champions
Featured Image credit: centralfloridalifestyle.com