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1. Watch the throne
There have been setbacks, of course. In 2006, after an 8-5 breakthrough, UCF went 4-8. The Knights bounced to 10-4, then dropped to 4-8. They went 19-8 in 2009-10, then lost six one-possession games and fell to 5-7. But the slope was positive. Each time UCF improved under George O'Leary, the bar got raised. And in the last two years, the setbacks have been minimal, and the bar has only gone higher.
Since the start of 2012, O'Leary's squad has gone 22-5. The Knights have lost to Ohio State, Missouri, and South Carolina and are 22-2 against everybody else. They won at Louisville and Penn State, thumped Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, and finished 12-1 in 2013. They not only ended the season in the polls for the second time ever, they finished 10th.
Meet the AAC
Meet the AAC
So is this where we see another setback? UCF has to replace a quarterback who's likely to go in the top 10 of the NFL Draft. An 1,100-yard rusher, three all-conference offensive linemen, and a strong defensive tackle are also gone. Plus, the Knights were 7-1 in one-possession games a year ago, which is unsustainable. UCF has been at one extreme or the other in close games recently, and that could very easily skew in the other direction with a new quarterback.
Still, the receiving corps is loaded for the new quarterback, and the defense returns almost everybody from the two-deep. UCF could offset offensive regression with defensive progression. There are former three- and four-star recruits in every unit on both sides of the ball. The Knights have a couple of questions to answer, but they will start 2014 on a different tier from everybody else in the conference.
UCF might not have been the best team in the conference last season -- for the season as a whole, the numbers say that was still Louisville, which finished 12th in the F/+ rankings to UCF's 21st -- but the Knights are now far and away the most proven, accomplished, well-established program in the new AAC. George O'Leary has not only brought a high level of success to Orlando, he's also built the foundation of the program in a slow, steady fashion. There just aren't many holes to fill here.
2. It still took some good fortune
I'm very, very high on UCF as a program, and I think the 2014 Knights won't fall very far, if at all, despite the loss of Blake Bortles, Storm Johnson, and company. But while I have them in a tier of their own in this conference, they're only a step ahead of teams like Cincinnati, ECU, and Houston, not leaps and bounds.
While they beat Penn State, Louisville, and Baylor, they did still need late, improbable heroics to beat Memphis (two fumble recovery touchdowns in the last three minutes) and Temple (10 points in the final 66 seconds, seven of which came off of this ridiculous catch). They did need a late goal line stand to beat Houston. They did need a fourth-quarter comeback to fend off listless USF.
They saved their best performances for the best teams on the schedule, but there were still weaknesses here, and playing to your level of competition is certainly a good way to get upset. This has certainly been an O'Leary trait through the years. In 2012, UCF fought well before falling to 12-0 Ohio State, then sleepwalked through a 13-point win over 3-9 FIU. In 2011, the Knights barely lost to 12-2 Southern Miss, then slipped up to 5-7 ECU. In 2010, UCF barely lost to 9-4 N.C. State, then plodded through an uninspiring win over 2-10 Buffalo.
Saving your best for the best teams inserts quite a bit of volatility and unpredictability, and unpredictable teams don't always make for good favorites.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 21|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|29-Aug||Akron||108||38-7||W||41.7 - 20.3||W|
|6-Sep||at Florida International||125||38-0||W||29.0 - 15.8||W|
|14-Sep||at Penn State||61||34-31||W||46.2 - 36.0||W|
|28-Sep||South Carolina||10||25-28||L||39.3 - 26.7||W|
|5-Oct||at Memphis||83||24-17||W||24.7 - 35.0||L||9.4|
|18-Oct||at Louisville||12||38-35||W||61.0 - 33.0||W||10.7|
|26-Oct||Connecticut||93||62-17||W||44.6 - 19.5||W||13.1|
|9-Nov||Houston||46||19-14||W||36.2 - 25.8||W||13.2|
|16-Nov||at Temple||98||39-36||W||41.2 - 37.1||W||11.5|
|21-Nov||Rutgers||91||41-17||W||35.8 - 16.6||W||17.4|
|29-Nov||South Florida||99||23-20||W||28.5 - 29.2||L||11.6|
|7-Dec||at SMU||84||17-13||W||28.3 - 21.5||W||8.0|
|1-Jan||vs. Baylor||7||52-42||W||54.5 - 23.1||W||12.2|
|Points Per Game||34.6||30||21.3||17|
|Adj. Points Per Game||39.3||8||26.1||52|
3. Big in big moments
When you avoid those upset bids, though, best-against-best can make for a pretty memorable season. UCF survived duds against Memphis and USF, got past some bad breaks against Houston and Temple, and put itself in a position to win the AAC. And with the conference title on the line, the Knights played their best ball of the season.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): UCF 36.2, Opponent 24.7 (plus-11.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): UCF 47.3, Opponent 26.1 (plus-21.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): UCF 33.5, Opponent 26.1 (plus-7.4)
The offense came and went in 2013, while the defense was mostly steady. In 2014, the onus will be on the defense to raise its game to account for what might be a bit more inconsistency -- well, the same inconsistency with a lower baseline -- from the offense.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||49.3%||13||Succ. Rt. +||121.5||7|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||26.6||11||Def. FP+||103.4||21|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||37||Redzone S&P+||104.6||41|
|Q1 Rk||10||1st Down Rk||19|
|Q2 Rk||22||2nd Down Rk||2|
|Q3 Rk||7||3rd Down Rk||31|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Justin Holman||6'4, 206||So.||3 stars (5.5)||9||14||75||1||1||64.3%||0||0.0%||5.4|
|Pete DiNovo||6'1, 207||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Tyler Harris||6'4, 218||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
4. More than Bortles
Blake Bortles is a really good quarterback. It confused me to see him linked to the No. 1 pick in the draft -- in two-plus years of watching him play, I never thought I was looking at a top-five caliber draft pick -- but while you could occasionally pressure him into a poor decision, they were few and far between, especially in his junior season. He completed more than two-thirds of his passes while averaging nearly 14 yards per completion, and again, he raised his game at key moments: He was 21-for-32 for 250 yards against Louisville, 20-for-27 for 288 against Penn State, 20-for-31 for 301 against Baylor, and even 25-for-36 for 358 in the lone loss to South Carolina. Interceptions were problematic against S.C. and Baylor, but he was a very good college quarterback. There's no doubting that.
Still, he wasn't the sole reason for UCF's success. First of all, he had one hell of a line protecting him. UCF's offensive line did wonderful jobs in both short-yardage run blocking and passing-downs pass blocking and, as mentioned above, featured three all-conference performers. Plus, Bortles got to share the backfield with two fun backs, Storm Johnson and William Stanback. And he had one of the nation's deepest receiving corps at his disposal.
The next quarterback inherits pieces of that, as we'll discuss below. But who will be the starting quarterback? Sophomore Justin Holman ... probably. He was the first-stringer at the end of spring ball, but he didn't dominate, and O'Leary didn't officially name him the starter. He'll have to continue fending off redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo and true freshman Tyler Harris into the fall. The lanky Holman didn't get many opportunities in 2013, but he did complete nine of his 14 passes and did get to the second level of the defense for a couple of solid runs.
|William Stanback||RB||5'11, 221||So.||2 stars (5.2)||105||443||6||4.2||4.7||32.4%|
|Rannell Hall||WR||6'1, 196||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||121||1||8.6||4.2||71.4%|
|Dontravious Wilson||RB||5'10, 212||So.||2 stars (5.4)||9||10||0||1.1||1.5||11.1%|
|Justin Holman||QB||6'4, 206||So.||3 stars (5.5)||7||40||0||5.7||10.6||28.6%|
|Micah Reed||RB||5'10, 206||So.||3 stars (5.6)||7||13||0||1.9||3.0||28.6%|
|Cedric Thompson||RB||6'0, 226||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||5||17||0||3.4||2.0||40.0%|
|C.J. Jones||RB||5'10, 195||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. Whither the run game?
Despite the loss of Bortles, I'm a lot more worried about the run than the pass in 2014. The line is starting over, albeit with a two-year starting tackle in Torrian Wilson and a wealth of former three-star recruits. Johnson is gone, too, which means the training wheels are off for Stanback, who had huge moments against Louisville and Houston but was pretty inefficient for much of the year.
There are quite a few candidates for breakthroughs here, guys who could easily make us feel silly for doubting the run. Sophomore running back Micah Reed came to Orlando with a pretty nice pedigree, and incoming three-star freshman C.J. Jones could provide depth. And while you cannot assume the same level of competence up front, the sophomore class features four former three-star recruits who, if they're not ready for big-time play in 2014, could be there by 2015.
There are so many sophomores involved in the ground game that one really does assume great things for 2015-16. This coming season, however, is still a question mark.
|Rannell Hall||WR||6'1, 196||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||78||57||886||73.1%||20.3%||60.3%||11.4||237||10.8||151.9|
|J.J. Worton||WR||6'2, 211||Sr.||NR||68||47||721||69.1%||17.7%||60.3%||10.6||172||10.0||123.6|
|WR||5'11, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||80||52||799||65.0%||17.6%||62.5%||10.0||N/A||9.9||94.1|
|Breshad Perriman||WR||6'2, 209||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||63||39||811||61.9%||16.4%||55.7%||12.9||329||12.7||139.0|
|Josh Reese||WR||6'0, 184||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||36||21||252||58.3%||9.4%||44.4%||7.0||-16||7.4||43.2|
|William Stanback||RB||5'11, 221||So.||2 stars (5.2)||19||15||186||78.9%||4.9%||61.1%||9.8||21||10.7||31.9|
|Justin Tukes||TE||6'5, 257||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||17||13||116||76.5%||4.4%||56.3%||6.8||-29||6.5||19.9|
|Kevin Miller||TE||6'4, 250||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||4||2||18||50.0%||1.0%||100.0%||4.5||-10||3.3||3.1|
|Taylor Oldham||WR||6'1, 199||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Blake Davis||TE||6'3, 243||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Mario Mathis||HB||6'1, 234||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Tre'Quan Smith||WR||6'3, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
6. All the wideouts you need
J.J. Worton, purveyor of the best catch you saw last season (against Temple), was actually UCF's No. 2 receiver. That alone says quite a bit. Worton, No. 1 Rannell Hall, and No. 3 Breshad Perriman all averaged at least 10.6 yards per target in 2013, and former four-star recruit Josh Reese pitched in a decent 7.0.
Stanback proved threatening out of the backfield, tight end Justin Tukes caught three-quarters of the passes thrown his way, and any of four three-star youngsters could be ready to break into the rotation in 2014. Oh yeah, and transfer Jackie Williams, who led UAB in receiving in 2012, should easily replace the production and potential of departed Jeff Godfrey.
This receiving corps is loaded; it helped Bortles evidently turn into a top-10 prospect, and it should ease the transition for Holman or whoever lands the job as Bortles' replacement. The biggest question for the offense is simply whether the run game, seventh-best in the country last year according to Rushing S&P+, is capable of keeping UCF out of too many obvious passing situations.
|Justin McCray||RG||32||1st All-AAC|
|Jordan McCray||LG||28||1st All-AAC|
|Chris Martin||RT||28||2nd All-AAC|
|Torrian Wilson||LT||6'3, 308||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||29|
|Joey Grant||C||6'2, 291||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||14|
|Tarik Cook||RG||6'2, 294||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||2|
|Chester Brown||RT||6'5, 325||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Michael Campbell||LT||6'5, 280||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Kelly Parfitt||LG||6'5, 312||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Colby Watson||RG||6'4, 302||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Tate Hernly||LG||6'2, 290||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Lance McDowdell||OL||6'4, 300||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Chavis Dickey||OL||6'4, 300||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.4%||40||Succ. Rt. +||96.4||69|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||32.2||23||Off. FP+||99.5||68|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.0||54||Redzone S&P+||88.2||92|
|Q1 Rk||39||1st Down Rk||18|
|Q2 Rk||59||2nd Down Rk||94|
|Q3 Rk||89||3rd Down Rk||105|
7. Opponents played to UCF's strengths
Heading into last season, UCF had to replace the top three linemen, two of the top three linebackers, and three of the top five defensive backs from a unit that ranked a decent 42nd in Def. F/+. It was reasonable to expect regression, but instead, the Knights improved to 38th.
That alone says pretty exciting things about 2014; this time around, UCF returns four of five up front, four of five at linebacker, and basically all of last year's secondary. Experience alone could make this a top-30 defense.
Opponents did UCF a favor last year, however: they passed a lot. As was the case in 2012, the Knights were much better defending the pass than the run, but a combination of UCF leads and opponent tendencies (there were certainly quite a few pass-first teams on the schedule) meant that the Knights spent a disproportionate amount of time defending what they defend the best. If the UCF offense struggles a bit more this fall, that could change.
UCF's run defense was confusing in 2013. As you see below, the Knights ranked fourth in Power Success Rate (short-yardage success) and fifth in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line of scrimmage), but they ranked 106th in Rushing S&P+. How does this happen? First, Power Success Rate and Stuff Rate are not adjusted for opponent, and outside of South Carolina, Louisville, and Baylor, UCF didn't play against many good offenses. Second, UCF took quite a few risks up front, and when the Knights weren't making a stop behind the line, they were allowing a solid chunk of yardage.
Again, experience will help. Tackle E.J. Dunston and linebacker Sean Maag are gone; they combined for 7.5 non-sack tackles for loss. But everybody else from the front seven is back, including tackles Demetris Anderson and Jaryl Mamea. At the very least, the run defense shouldn't be any worse, and the odds of improvement are good.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Thomas Niles||DE||6'2, 270||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||22.0||3.2%||8.0||4.0||0||0||0||0|
|Demetris Anderson||DT||6'2, 304||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||19.0||2.8%||7.0||1.0||0||2||0||0|
|Miles Pace||DE||6'2, 247||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||8||12.0||1.8%||4.0||1.5||0||1||0||0|
|Jaryl Mamea||DT||6'1, 273||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||11.0||1.6%||4.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Seyvon Lowry||DE||6'3, 236||So.||3 stars (5.6)||6||6.5||1.0%||3.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Deion Green||DE||6'1, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||6||5.5||0.8%||2.0||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|Deondre Barnett||DE||6'2, 221||So.||2 stars (5.4)||6||4.5||0.7%||2.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rob Sauvao||DT||6'2, 276||Sr.||NR|
|Luke Adams||DE||6'4, 260||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Tony Guerad||DT||6'3, 296||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Stanley Sylverain||DE||6'1, 232||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jamiyus Pittman||DT||6'2, 300||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Terrance Plummer||MLB||6'1, 241||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||86.0||12.6%||8.5||2.5||2||6||2||0|
|Troy Gray||OLB||6'1, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||48.0||7.0%||4.0||1.0||2||4||1||0|
|Justin McDonald||OLB||6'2, 211||So.||2 stars (5.4)||9||24.5||3.6%||4.0||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Michael Easton||OLB||5'11, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||23.0||3.4%||2.0||0.0||0||0||2||0|
|Willie Mitchell||LB||6'0, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||2||7.0||1.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chequan Burkett||LB||6'1, 212||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||4||5.5||0.8%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Domenic Spencer||LB||5'10, 231||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||5||2.5||0.4%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Maurice Russell||LB||5'11, 239||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Mark Rucker||LB||5'9, 216||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Errol Clarke||LB||6'3, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Clayton Geathers||SS||6'2, 207||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||82.0||12.0%||4.5||0||2||10||2||0|
|Jordan Ozerities||CB||5'10, 191||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||50.5||7.4%||4.5||1||1||6||0||0|
|Brandon Alexander||FS||6'2, 191||Sr.||NR||13||49.5||7.2%||3||1||3||7||1||0|
|Jacoby Glenn||CB||6'0, 176||So.||3 stars (5.5)||12||45.5||6.7%||3||2||2||15||2||0|
|Drico Johnson||FS||6'2, 206||So.||3 stars (5.6)||13||10.5||1.5%||0||0||0||1||1||1|
|Sean Beckton||CB||5'10, 184||Sr.||NR||11||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|D.J. Killings||CB||5'10, 180||So.||3 stars (5.5)||8||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||3||0||0|
|Shaquill Griffin||CB||6'1, 180||So.||3 stars (5.6)||8||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Jared Henry||SS||5'11, 201||So.||3 stars (5.5)||3||4.5||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brendin Straubel||DB||5'9, 189||Jr.||NR||8||4.5||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kyle Gibson||DB||6'0, 180||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Chris Williams||DB||6'2, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Mike Rogers||DB||6'0, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
8. But seriously, don't pass on this team
Even if the run defense improves, you should probably still take your chances on the ground. The secondary was dominant last year despite a sketchy pass rush, and everybody's back this fall, from safeties Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander (combined: 7.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions, 17 break-ups), to corners Jordan Ozerities and Jacoby Glenn (combined: 7.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, 21 break-ups). Plus, three very highly touted freshmen join the mix as well, including four-star signee Kyle Gibson.
The linebacking corps was active in pass defense, too. It's hard to say with confidence that the pass rush will improve much, but this will be a top-40 pass defense despite it. Any sort of pressure, and this becomes an elite unit.
|Caleb Houston||6'2, 206||So.||41||42.2||5||7||12||46.3%|
|Sean Galvin||6'3, 221||Sr.||74||62.8||23||1||31.1%|
|Shawn Moffitt||5'11, 178||Sr.||11||56.9||1||0||9.1%|
|Shawn Moffitt||5'11, 178||Sr.||49-49||20-21||95.2%||1-2||50.0%|
|Rodrigo Quirarte||6'1, 195||Sr.||4-4||0-0||N/A||0-1||0.0%|
|Rannell Hall||KR||6'1, 196||Sr.||29||23.8||0|
|William Stanback||KR||5'11, 205||So.||11||19.8||0|
|J.J. Worton||PR||6'2, 211||Sr.||13||12.1||0|
|Special Teams F/+||23|
|Field Goal Efficiency||17|
|Punt Return Efficiency||81|
|Kick Return Efficiency||44|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||90|
9. Acing the kicking game
UCF's special teams unit wasn't without flaws in 2013; punter Caleb Houston outkicked his coverage from time to time, and punt returns weren't incredibly consistent.
But between Shawn Moffitt's place-kicking and the coverage associated with Sean Galvin's kickoffs, UCF was just fine in this regard. Moffitt was automatic inside 40 yards (and limited outside of 40), and while Galvin only kicked touchbacks 31 percent of the time, UCF was second in the country in Kickoff Efficiency. Opponents averaged just 20.3 yards per return, and Galvin seemed to master the art of a high kickoff fielded just outside the goal line.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|30-Aug||vs. Penn State||38|
|28-Nov||at South Florida||77|
|4-Dec||at East Carolina||72|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||8.3% (36)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||73|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||5 / 8.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (6, 9)|
10. Business up front, party in the back
When you've got a new quarterback, the optimal situation might be to start the season with a couple of cupcake games to work out the kinks, then jump into the meat of the schedule. UCF does not have that luxury. Someone -- probably Justin Holman, maybe not -- will be making his first start against Penn State in Dublin. Two weeks later, he'll be making his second start on the road against defending SEC East champion Missouri. After an FCS tune-up, his fourth start could come on the road against what might be UCF's toughest AAC competition, Houston. Survive the first half of the season, however, and the wins should flow later on, at least until Thanksgiving.
UCF won't be falling to 5-7 even if quarterback play is sketchy, but the schedule does the Knights no favors, both because of the tough start and because of road games against both Houston and ECU.
Some bad breaks in close games and a road loss or two could doom them in the AAC title race, but make no mistake: O'Leary has built this program for the long haul. The Knights are in better shape from top to bottom, and have more proven pieces, than anybody in the league. They recruit pretty well, they develop, they play good defense even with minimal experience, and they simply have more athleticism than anybody else.
Will the Knights take a step backwards in 2014? Sure, maybe. But even if they do, they'll probably be the odds-on favorite to win the league in 2015, 2016, and beyond.