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UCF went from 0 wins to a bowl in Scott Frost’s 1st year. What now?

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The Knights don’t have to overachieve much to approach nine wins, and Frost tends to overachieve.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In 1996, Scott Frost became eligible for Nebraska after transferring back home from Stanford. The Cornhuskers had just lost one of the best college quarterbacks of all time and had won back-to-back national titles. In Tommie Frazier’s absence, Frost guided them to a 24-2 record over two years and secured a third title for Tom Osborne.

After a brief pro career that included time on both offense (quarterback) and defense (safety), Frost got his first full-time assistant position at Northern Iowa in 2007; the Panthers surged from 7-4 to 12-1, then won 12 games the next year with Frost as defensive co-coordinator.

Frost landed at Oregon in 2009, switching back to offense to become first-year head man Chip Kelly’s receivers coach. The Ducks won 46 games in three years and finished as national runner-up in 2010. When Kelly left in 2013 and Mark Helfrich took over, Frost moved up to coordinator, and Oregon again finished as national runner-up. Frost left after 2015, and Oregon fell from 9-4 to 4-8.

UCF was coming off of its second-ever winless season. The Knights immediately improved from 0-12 to 6-7, reaching a bowl and improving by 48 spots in the S&P+ rankings.

Does Frost get full credit for all of these wins and surges? Of course not. This is college football; hundreds of people are involved with every team.

Still, where Frost goes, wins follow. It’s been the case no matter where he plays or what he coaches. Frost may not have the most gregarious reputation in the world, but it appears he’s really good at just about every aspect of football.

This is both good and bad news for UCF. For however long Frost is there, the Knights are likely to improve. He needed just one year to restore some shine to a program that lost all of it overnight in George O’Leary’s final days as coach. Then, per the 247Sports Composite, he inked the best class of any Group of 5 team. The Knights’ class ranked 54th overall, five spots ahead of Memphis’ and seven ahead of Boise State’s. UCF might be back among the top teams of the AAC East sooner than later.

On the other hand, the rumors are going to begin soon, especially if Nebraska struggles in 2017. Frost’s name will be hot in coaching searches.

But that’s a worry for the offseason. Heading into 2017, there’s plenty of reason to believe UCF will continue to surge. After all, last year’s improvement really only encompassed one side of the ball.

UCF improved from 110th to 30th in Def. S&P+ last year; an experienced Knights defense conformed with what coordinator Erik Chinander wanted to do, and while the secondary is undergoing a drastic rebuild, the front seven returns enough to lead you to believe any drop-off could be only minor.

Meanwhile, the Knights’ offense was nearly nonexistent. UCF improved only from 126th to 117th in Off. S&P+, but they did so with a freshman quarterback, freshman running back, and mostly sophomores in the receiving corps. Oh, and a few freshmen and sophomores up front.

Experience and competition on the two-deep should lead to enough offensive improvement to offset regression on defense. The Knights should be bowling again. Depending on some relative tossups, they could be in a pretty good bowl.

Just about any coach was probably going to come in and engineer improvement. UCF was far too talented to fall as far as it did in O’Leary’s last year, and considering returning production, recent recruiting, and 2015’s bad turnovers luck, conditions were favorable. Still, Frost won a game or two more than projected. Things have quickly begun to look up again for the 2014 Fiesta Bowl champs.


2016 in review

2016 UCF statistical profile.

Considering how young UCF was on offense, it wasn’t a given to think that the Knights would be able to handle business against lesser teams. But aside from a dud of a bowl against Arkansas State, they did. They weren’t ready to turn the corner against the better teams, but, well, when you’re a year removed from going 0-12, you take your shots where you can get.

  • UCF vs. S&P+ top 80 (0-6): Avg. percentile performance: 29% (~top 90) | Avg. score: Opp 37, UCF 21 (minus-16) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.2, UCF 4.0 (minus-1.2)
  • UCF vs. No. 81-plus (6-1): Avg. percentile performance: 56% (~top 55 | Avg. score: UCF 35, Opp 14 (plus-21) | Avg. yards per play: UCF 5.2, Opp 4.4 (plus-0.8)

The Knights’ athletic advantages were too much for lesser teams, and while UCF’s offense was never good (5.2 yards per play against bad teams is quite substandard), we caught glimpses of what Frost’s tempo attack might be able to do. They drubbed bad teams like FIU (53-14), ECU (47-29), and Tulane (37-6).

Meanwhile, against good teams, the goal was to slog out respectable results. The Knights did more than that in a 26-25 loss to Temple and stayed close despite getting outplayed in a 31-24 loss to Houston. Otherwise, they didn’t have enough to stay within 15 points of Tulsa, 17 of USF, or 37 of Michigan.


Offense

UCF offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

If you combined everything you know about Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters, you would get a pretty accurate read of what UCF tried to do. Frost played in Nebraska’s option attack in the 1990s and spent seven years in Oregon’s run-heavy, hurry-up spread. Edwards produced nearly 4,000 receiving yards as a Stanford receiver in the late-1990s and spent 2013-15 as receivers coach for a Colorado offense built around dual-threat passer Sefo Liufau.

Mash those together and sprinkle in a freshman quarterback, and you get an up-tempo attack that tried to keep heat off of its young signal caller by throwing on standard downs and running on passing downs. UCF utilized whatever it had to keep defenses momentarily off balance, and it occasionally worked.

UCF offensive efficiency & explosiveness

All things considered, this was to be expected. Improvement is almost guaranteed in 2017. The question is, how much?

From the perspective of recruiting rankings, the answer is “plenty.” UCF boasts more former three- and four-star recruits than just about anybody in the conference. Starting quarterback McKenzie Milton, backup running backs Adrian Killins and Taj McGowan, tight end Jordan Akins, receiver Cam Stewart, tackle Wyatt Miller, and guard Jordan Johnson were all mid-three-stars and contributed in 2016. Milton, Killins, and Akins even looked the part occasionally. Leading rusher Jawon Hamilton and receiver Tre’Quan Smith were also three-star guys.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Central Florida
Tre'Quan Smith
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The upside only rises further when you add in recent recruits. Frost inked three high-caliber running backs, including four-star 240-pounder Cordarrian Richardson, and added two high-three-star receivers. Plus, sophomore receiver Dredrick Snelson and junior receiver Tristan Payton (suspended for at least the first half of 2017) still have time to live up to lofty recruiting ratings.

As I like to say, though, recruiting rankings expire. The concept of upside only lasts so long before your actual production defines you. And UCF’s actual production in 2017 was miserable. Including sacks, Milton averaged under 5 yards per pass. Hamilton averaged 3.6 yards per carry. And among returnees, only Akins produced a success rate over 50 percent. All seven of the returning linemen with starting experience were three-stars; that didn’t stop the Knights from ranking a miserable 127th in both Adj. Line Yards and stuff rate.

The one thing UCF has going for it is time. The Knights might start as few as two or three seniors in 2017. Milton, Hamilton, Killins, and one of the returning starting linemen (Jordan Johnson) are sophomores. The rest of the key returnees are juniors. And UCF has only begun to tap into Frost’s recruiting.

Milton showed high-level promise early in his tenure. He took over after UCF’s miserable Week 2 showing against Michigan, and in his first four games, he completed 61 percent of his passes with a 148.8 passer rating; he also rushed well against Temple and UConn.

From that point forward, however, those numbers sank to a 56 percent completion rate and a 93.9 passer rating. Opponents adjusted, and Milton wasn’t ready for Plan B just yet. He had a decent enough spring, and between senior Pete DiNovo and incoming freshmen Darriel Mack Jr. and Noah Vedral, he should face decent enough competition to improve. But he’s undersized (listed at 5’11, 170 pounds) and is only a decent runner. It will be interesting to see if his upside keeps up with the upside of his teammates. If it does, UCF’s offense should click pretty soon — if not in 2017, then definitely by 2018.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida
McKenzie Milton
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

UCF defensive radar

When Frost was coaching defense for Northern Iowa, Erik Chinander was coaching offense; he spent 2004-09 as UNI’s tight ends coach, then switched to defense and spent five of the next six seasons with Frost in Eugene.

Chinander, a former walk-on offensive lineman at Iowa, certainly found affirmation in his first year as UCF defensive coordinator. First, Oregon’s defense fell 25 spots in Def. S&P+ in his absence; second, and more importantly, UCF’s defense rose by 80. Granted, he inherited personnel that was used to succeeding — under O’Leary, the Knights ranked between 27th and 48th every year from 2008-14 before 2015’s collapse — but righting the ship is never guaranteed.

Chinander installed an aggressive 3-4, and his linebackers wrecked shop. The Knights ranked first in linebacker havoc rate and 23rd in success rate, and when opponents were able to create scoring opportunities, the Knights got even more aggressive, allowing just 3.7 points per chance (15th). They were handed wretched field position by an inefficient offense and overcame it most of the time.

The heart and soul was Shaquem Griffin; the outside linebacker earned AAC defensive player of the year honors after recording 20 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and eight passes defensed. And though UCF experiences some turnover at linebacker, Griffin does get some battery mates back in ILBs Pat Jasinski and Chequan Burkett. Chinander played a ton of guys despite a relative lack of injury, so despite losing six linebackers with at least 8 tackles, five such LBs return.

The entire line is also back. For a 3-4 front, this line didn’t have the requisite size (only two players were listed at more than 285 pounds, and one was a freshman), and the Knights were certainly quite a bit better against the pass (19th in Passing S&P+) than the run (79th in Rushing S&P+). Still, plenty of attacking talent remains. End Tony Guerad logged 10 TFLs, backup ends like Jock Petree appear capable of disruption, and UCF got another nine TFLs from the aforementioned big men, senior-to-be Jamiyus Pittman and sophomore Trysten Hill.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Central Florida
Shaquem Griffin (18) and Jock Petree (97)
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

I would be surprised if UCF didn’t improve against the run. And if this is true, the Knights should be good at not only forcing passing downs but also knocking the quarterback around.

The problems will come if or when the quarterback gets a pass off. UCF has to replace its top two safeties and top two corners, and the top remaining corner, sophomore Nevelle Clarke, is suspended for at least the first half of the year. The safety position still boasts juniors Kyle Gibson and Tre Neal, who saw enough playing time to combine for 37.5 tackles (and almost no havoc plays) last year. But corner is a mystery. Some combination of junior Rashard Causey, sophomore (and spring star) Brandon Moore, and freshmen will have to deliver, or else the pass defense will likely regress considerably.

Chinander will have a choice to make. Either he keeps the aggressiveness dialed up and prepares to tolerate breakdowns in the secondary, or he scales back on havoc to protect his young secondary and risks losing his identity. And while early opponents like Georgia Tech and Maryland are much more advanced running than throwing, Week 2 opponent Memphis could torch the Knights.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Central Florida
Chequan Burkett (40) and Pat Jasinski (56)
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

A lot was asked of place-kicker Matthew Wright in 2016, and he mostly came through. He was asked to attempt 13 field goals of more than 40 yards — on the rare occasions that the offense actually moved the ball, it typically didn’t move the ball all the way to the end zone —and he made nine of them. He also made eight of nine shorter FGs.

Wright’s success powered a No. 13 ranking for UCF in Special Teams S&P+, but he got help from an exciting return game. Adrian Killins was a home run threat in kick returns, and Chris Johnson was efficient, if not particularly explosive, in punt returns. Wright, Killins, and Johnson are all back, so this should be a steady unit again even though the Knights have to figure some things out in the punting game.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Florida International 104 10.3 72%
9-Sep Memphis 61 -3.1 43%
16-Sep Georgia Tech 31 -8.7 31%
23-Sep at Maryland 72 -3.7 42%
30-Sep Maine NR 19.5 87%
7-Oct at Cincinnati 75 -2.8 43%
14-Oct East Carolina 100 9.2 70%
21-Oct at Navy 71 -4.0 41%
4-Nov at SMU 81 -0.2 50%
11-Nov Connecticut 125 16.4 83%
18-Nov at Temple 67 -6.9 35%
24-Nov South Florida 56 -3.6 42%
Projected S&P+ Rk 78
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 101 / 46
Projected wins 6.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.6 (69)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 60 / 65
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 5.6
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 58% (78%, 38%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.0 (0.0)

The odds were always in favor of a quick turnaround. A team this athletic, with a sustained record of recent success, is a prime bounce-back candidate after a random awful season. O’Leary lost his edge, but he left a program with strong bones.

In 2016 we saw the Knights bounce back. The defense carried them through an offensive youth movement, and now the offense should be ready to carry some weight. More importantly, O’Leary’s replacement appears to be stocking up on even more exciting pieces.

No matter what role he plays, Frost wins. He won as a college quarterback, he has contributed to wins as an assistant coach, and he engineered six-win improvement in his first year as a head coach. Sure, the conditions were favorable; he still overachieved.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he and his Knights did so again in 2017. Granted, there would be little wrong with sustaining gains after going from 0-12 to bowl eligibility, and there’s a chance that turnover in the secondary puts a cap on second-year growth. Still, even with a conservative No. 78 S&P+ projection, the Knights are projected to win 6.4 games. If the offense surges, as I think could be the case, then the six games in which they have win probability between 41 and 50 percent could shift more toward 51-60 or 61-70 percent.


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