UCF Knights quarterback Blake Bortles (5) throws a pass during the game against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles at M.M. Roberts Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-US PRESSWIRE
UCF has seen incredible ups and downs in George O'Leary's tenure. A struggle with offensive identity and defensive youth led to a downer of a season in 2011; will experience, depth and a Storm lead to another upper in 2012? Related: UCF's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore. Follow @SBNationCFB
Last year, in my preview of the Air Force Falcons, I used one of my favorite random references, Steve Trachsel.
In 1994, a young righty named Steve Trachsel went 9-7 for the Chicago Cubs; over 146 innings, he produced a rock solid 3.21 ERA and a WAR of 3.1. In 1995, his numbers plummeted: 7-13 with a 5.15 ERA and minus-1.2 WAR. He rebounded in 1996 (13-9, 3.03 ERA, 3.3 WAR) and crumbled in 1997 (8-12, 4.51, 0.8). For a decade, he was wonderful in even-numbered years and horrid in odd-numbered years. It was one of the stranger, more random phenomena I can remember.
I used Trachsel to point out Air Force's odd habit of surging forward in odd-numbered years. Turns out, there was another team worthy of Trachselization: George O'Leary's Central Florida Knights.
Since taking over in Orlando, O'Leary has overseen more rises and falls than what I have dealt with in purchasing GE stock about five years ago. They went from 0-11 in 2004, to 8-5 in 2005, to 4-8 in 2006, to 10-4 in 2007, to 4-8 in 2008, to 8-5 in 2009. That's 8-27 in even-numbered seasons, 26-14 in odds. They bucked the trend by improving to 11-3 in 2010, but apparently they were just forestalling the step backwards. Following a 2010 season that saw them win Conference USA, beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl and finish ranked for the first time ever … they fell to 5-7 in 2011.
Is another rebound likely? You betcha.
UCF's record in one-possession games (record in others)
2004: 0-4 (0-7)
2005: 4-1 (4-4)
2006: 2-3 (2-5)
2007: 1-2 (9-2)
2008: 1-3 (3-5)
2009: 5-2 (3-3)
2010: 2-2 (9-1)
2011: 0-6 (5-1)
To be sure, UCF was worse in 2011 than they were in 2010, as evidenced by their overall F/+ rankings (31st in 2010, 53rd in 2011), but considering they suffered nearly three points of bad injury luck per game (in a season that saw them lose games by one point to Southern Miss and two points to UAB, no less), considering the three teams above them in the rankings (Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Auburn) combined to go 26-14, and considering the three teams below them (Utah, SMU, Ohio) also went 26-14, it's pretty clear that UCF's seven losses were a bit of a mirage. With a stellar running game, an intriguing quarterback, and most of the defense returning, there is little reason to question whether UCF will be back among bowl-eligible teams and making themselves a factor in the Conference USA race.
Bad luck or no, there were still warning signs regarding a potential step backwards. Here's what I said about UCF last year:
In 2010, Central Florida gave a glimpse of what it could become. The Knights went 11-3, won the Conference USA title, and held off a semi-uninterested Georgia team to win the Liberty Bowl. It was their first bowl win among four trips in the last six years, and it represented a significant step forward for George O'Leary and the program as a whole.
The question now is, is this sustainable? […]
Recruiting is picking up (their 2011 class ranked 39th according to Rivals, highest of any mid-major team excluding TCU, who won't be a mid-major for long) ... there's a potential star at quarterback and an offensive coordinator who seems to get him ... there are plenty of tools with which a defensive guy like O'Leary can work ... of this year's projected starters, 17 are underclassmen and could be returning starters next year. Things really are taking shape here. One has to figure UCF is on the Big East's radar, and with the program that O'Leary is building, there's nothing saying they won't be in position to compete immediately if they do get the call.
...I do get the sneaking suspicion that UCF might be in for a slight step backwards this season. If the new-look receiving corps cannot quickly find its way, then teams will find themselves more capable of focusing on and containing UCF's impressive run game. The slide would be subtle; second-and-5's turn into second-and-7's, third-and-3's turn into third-and-5's, and at the end of the season, people are trying to figure out why Godfrey suffered a sophomore slump. ... I'm almost leaning toward Southern Miss in the CUSA East.
UCF was still strong on standard downs, but Jeff Godfrey did struggle at times in 2011. He was banged up and sacked on seven percent of his pass attempts, and with the aforementioned "new-look receiving corps" failing to produce a true go-to target (though, to be sure, there are some interesting candidates), UCF was abhorrent on passing downs. Godfrey missed time with injury, and when it turned out his backup (Blake Bortles) might be better than him, it evidently created both some chemistry and leadership issues. All this said, of course, the offense wasn't really the problem. Instead, look toward the defense that fell apart over the last half of the season.
First five games: 17.2 Adj. Points per game allowed
Last seven games: 28.0 Adj. Points per game allowed
The defense ranked 103rd in the fourth quarter, allowing just enough for Florida International, BYU, UAB, Tulsa, Southern Miss and East Carolina to all make the plays they needed to take the Knights down late.
If there was indeed a leadership or chemistry issue on the UCF offense, it appeared to potentially rectify itself when Godfrey, the sophomore who had so ably (and conservatively) led the Knights to the Conference USA title in 2010, announced he was transferring. His father called George O'Leary racist in the process. (Apparently the stats were also racist, since they, too, favored Bortles.) This became, with no doubt, Blake Bortles' team. Of course, earlier this week, O'Leary announced that Godfrey was coming back to the UCF program as a wide receiver and part-time Wildcat, er, WildKnight formation quarterback. I see no way this could end badly.
Regardless of whether Bortles is better (and I think he is), and regardless of whether his return affects chemistry, Godfrey does bring some skills to the table. He rushed for 510 yards in just 94 pre-sack attempts, and combined with the running of now-seniors Brynn Harvey and Latavius Murray (combined: 1,123 yards, 11 touchdowns, plus-6.3 Adj. POE), he was able to generate consistent yardage on standard downs. The problem was, with Godfrey behind center, passing downs conversions were next to impossible. With Bortles (or, technically, Tyler Gabbert, who arrives from Missouri this summer), UCF is able to run more of a pro-style look (with occasional WildKnight tendencies), and drives might not end the moment they hit second-and-9 or third-and-7.
With the personnel moves that have taken place recently, it appears UCF could be better on both standard and passing downs. First of all, in addition to Harvey and Murray, you can add former Miami back Storm Johnson to the mix at running back. Johnson, a former high four-star recruit, was a supernova for the Hurricanes, rushing nine times for a cool 119 yards (including a 71-yard touchdown), seizing control of the starting job in the spring, then suddenly leaving the program. This is almost certainly the best threesome of mid-major running backs in the country, and perhaps one of the best in the country, mid-major or not.
When UCF does fall into passing downs, Bortles and a more well-seasoned receiving corps will be more capable of digging them out. Two impressive 2011 freshmen -- J.J. Worton and four-star recruit Josh Reese (combined: 94 targets, 71 catches, 992 yards) -- are now sophomores, and early-enrollee Breshad Perriman (son of former New Orleans Saint and Detroit Tiger Brett Perriman, who pulled in 2,509 yards of passes in 1995-96) dominated in the spring. The receivers evidently suffered through some problems with dropsies this spring, so that is something worth watching, but there are some highly intriguing (and incredibly young) pieces in place. And including tackle Torrian Wilson (also a former four-star signee), it is possible that six of UCF's seven or eight best offensive players are either freshmen or sophomores (Bortles, Johnson, Worton, Reese, Perriman, Wilson). Yikes.
Still, that does mean the unit will be rather reliant on youth in 2012. And a line that must replace three players who had combined for 89 career starts might take a little while to gel. But whatever the Knights are able to produce in 2012, they will likely improve upon that in 2013-14 as they enter the Big East.
So a solid offense is likely to get better? What about a defense that was quite mediocre in 2011 following a four-year run of dominance? Initial signs are encouraging. Three of the top four ends return, as do the top three tackles, the top three outside linebackers, and the top three safeties. The Knights do have a couple of serious playmakers to replace -- middle linebacker Josh Linam (10 tackle for loss, two sacks, two picks, two passes broken up, two forced fumbles) and corner Josh Robinson (two picks, 15 passes broken up) -- but one has to be intrigued by the overall depth. Assuming improvement follows experience, at least.
Last year's UCF defense started out as fantastic as ever. The Knights allowed just 50 points in their first five contests, and 21 of those points were scored off either fumble returns or kickoff returns. In those five games, opponents completed just 62 of 135 passes (46 percent) for 501 yards. The UCF pass rush was predictably suffering a bit following the losses of Bruce Miller, David Williams and Derrick Hallman, who had combined for 28 tackles for loss in 2010, but they were still getting to the quarterback five percent of the time.
But then SMU and UAB combined to complete 70 percent of their passes for a combined 685 yards (with just one sack), corner A.J. Bouye was lost for the season with a knee injury, and, following a predictable rout of Memphis, the run defense gave out. UCF allowed 259 rushing yards to Tulsa (with just two total tackles for loss and no sacks), 519 total yards to Southern Miss, and nearly six yards per play to East Carolina. Up front, the UCF defense fell from 37th in Adj. Line Yards and 16th in Adj. Sack Rate to 75th and 60th, respectively. No lineman had more than 23.5 tackles. While the passing downs defense actually improved (from 29th in 2010 to 24th), UCF was rendered nearly incapable of forcing passing downs by the end of the season.
Bouye's return should help in replacing Josh Robinson, while sophomores like Terrance Plummer and Willie Mitchell should be able to somewhat alleviate the departure of Linam (not to mention former Florida basketball player Ray Shipman, who appears to be figuring things out at outside linebacker). The key to the season, then, could be in finding a run-stuffing tackle to line up opposite quick-but-small tackle Victor Gray (6-foot-4, 267 pounds) on the inside. Neither of two 300+ pound juniors -- E.J. Dunston or Josh Wofford -- were very effective last year, but there might not be any other great options. UCF's defense is based around speed, speed, speed, but it needs a little more size to avoid last year's struggles.
Considering the typical velocity of UCF's bounceback seasons, one would assume that UCF fans are aiming high in their team's final year in Conference USA. Still, the schedule is brutal enough to prevent a return to the land of double-digit wins. The Knights visit Ohio State on Sept. 8 and host Missouri on Sept. 29, and they must travel to face another conference favorite, Tulsa, in November. Still, the other three road games (Memphis, Marshall, UTEP) are all winnable enough to set the bar back at eight wins or so and a run at a division title.
Last year, I was quite bearish on O'Leary's Knights. The losses on defense scared me, and I wasn't sure how high the offense's ceiling might be if Jeff Godfrey wasn't able to improve on passing downs. This year, I'm surging in the opposite direction. I really like Bortles and the offense (drops aside), and I just have to assume that, while the defense probably won't play at 2007-10 levels, it will still improve a decent amount, as will, in theory, last year's bad luck. The schedule may preclude double-digit wins, but with East Carolina, Southern Miss and SMU visiting Orlando, it is friendly toward UCF's chances at a return to the Conference USA title game. There is a positive side to Trachselization, and UCF should see that side this fall, as long as chemistry doesn't get in the way.