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What does UCF do for an encore following (ahem) 2017’s national title run?

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Josh Heupel takes over for Scott Frost and will attempt to make the Knights even faster and more dangerous.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Auburn v Central Florida Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

[The text of this preview has been updated to include offseason roster moves.]

In the end, I was okay with UCF not getting a Playoff semifinal bid in 2017. The Knights were, on paper, a top-10 team and spent most of the first half of the season playing at a top-five level. But only four teams make the CFP, and Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson were all awesome — three of the four finished ahead of UCF in the year-end S&P+ rankings, and the one that didn’t (Clemson) was the CFP’s top seed.

I wouldn’t have complained had they gotten a bid, mind you. It would have set an aggressive precedent for mid-majors that college football should be willing to consider. Plus, a fourth-seeded UCF team could very well have beaten top-seeded Clemson. The Knights finished ahead of them in S&P+, after all.

Winning that game would have struck a symbolic blow even stronger than UCF’s eventual Peach Bowl win over Auburn, a team that had defeated both national title game participants (Bama and UGA).

The fact that UCF was denied a spot in the top four was an after-the-fact grievance. My in-the-moment grievance came from an unlikely source: Mississippi State.

Three weeks after the initial CFP rankings came out, UCF stood at only 15th in the rankings, behind eight two-loss power-conference teams. On November 18, the Knights beat Temple (final S&P+ rank: 78th) by 26 points on the road, while Mississippi State beat Arkansas (final S&P+ rank: 91st) by seven on the road. The next week, MSU hopped UCF in the CFP rankings.

That was the moment the CFP committee gave the game away.

Even if you nail all five steps of the nearly impossible How To Make The CFP As A G5 Team checklist* that only might get you into the conversation.

Even if Houston had gone unbeaten in 2016, with wins over excellent Oklahoma and Louisville teams, it’s conceivable that, through the simple act of playing a Navy or Memphis while other CFP competitors played an Arkansas or Miami, they would have fallen out of the top four.

It’s evident that change in college football — in terms of how teams outside of the sport’s primary power structure are treated — isn’t going to come from being nice.

It’s not going to come from taking advantage of opportunities or winning big games because, well, that’s been happening for a while now. Teams from Group of 5 conferences are 3-1 in their New Year’s 6 bowl opportunities (teams from the AAC: 2-0). In the last 10 years of the BCS’ existence, non-power teams went 5-2 against BCS bowl foes. And that’s despite two of the best mid-major teams of that era (2009 TCU and 2009 Boise State) getting pitted against each other in the Fiesta Bowl. G5 teams have justified the opportunities they’ve been given and have proved worthy of more.

No, change is going to come from being obnoxious, from calling out those higher up on the totem pole. After the Knights beat Auburn, they got obnoxious, claiming a share of the national title and proclaiming themselves as Alabama’s equal at every opportunity. It has clearly gotten under Bama’s skin. Have this cycle play out a few more times (or maybe a few hundred more), and maybe we’ll get somewhere!

The cycle now begins anew. UCF lost head coach Scott Frost to Nebraska and replaced him with a spread-and-tempo kindred spirit, former Mike Leach quarterback and Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. Frost pulled off one of the most incredible two-year turnarounds you’ll ever see, inheriting a drastically underachieving squad that went 0-12 in George O’Leary’s final season, improving by six wins in year one and another seven in year two. He was the perfect hire, and Heupel has an impossibly high bar to clear.

The Knights lost just enough of last year’s headliners that they probably won’t be able to take advantage of last year’s buzz by going unbeaten again. But the non-conference slate features UNC in Chapel Hill, Pitt at home, and a visit from this year’s notice-serving, glamorous-non-conference-schedule-having mid-major: FAU. Going a loud and obnoxious 13-0 again might be enough to sustain the CFP committee’s attention.

Or at least, that’s what I’m going to tell myself.

* (1) Create a perfect non-conference schedule (featuring at least a couple of excellent P5 teams) a few years ahead of time, (2) have those P5 foes remain awesome between when you schedule the game and when it actually kicks off, (3) peak the year before said perfect schedule so you can create some buzz, (4) have at least a couple of your conference foes peak as well (so you can have a boast a couple more top-25 wins), and (5) get enough breaks to get through this schedule unbeaten.

Offense

2017 UCF offensive radar

You will almost never see an offense improve like UCF’s did. Frost engineered a drastic youth movement in 2016, handing his first offense over to a freshman quarterback (McKenzie Milton), freshman running backs (Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins Jr.), and a receiving corps full of sophomores (Tre’Quan Smith, Jordan Akins, Cam Stewart) and a freshman (Dredrick Snelson). Hell, half the starts on the line went to underclassmen.

Predictably, the Knights were inconsistent. They averaged nearly 29 points per game because of tempo and quite a few weak opposing defenses, but they ranked only 117th in Off. S&P+.

In 2017, they ranked second.

  • Milton became the best G5 quarterback.
  • With Hamilton injured, Killins averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
  • Smith, Snelson, Akins, and Stewart combined for 143 catches, 2,578 yards, and 26 touchdowns.
  • The line produced three all-conference performers, and only one (LT Aaron Evans) was a senior.

Meanwhile, another couple of freshmen — receiver Gabriel Davis (391 receiving yards) and Percy Harvin-style do-it-all guy Otis Anderson (494 rushing yards, 351 receiving yarsd) — made an immediate impact.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Memphis at Central Florida
Dredrick Snelson (5) and McKenzie Milton (10)
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

It’s clear that, when UCF athletic director Danny White was searching for a Frost replacement, he wanted to maintain UCF’s high-tempo personality. And almost no one does tempo like Heupel (who will serve as his own coordinator).

The Knights ranked 22nd in Adj. Pace — they averaged 2.3 seconds per play fewer than their run-pass ratio would have suggested — but Mizzou ranked fourth at minus-4.3 seconds. He indeed picked up the pace this spring, and he should have the pieces to generate speedy first downs.

It starts with Milton. The 5’11 gunslinger completed 67 percent of his passes last season while also playing a key role in the run game, averaging about 7.5 non-sack carries per game and averaged 7 yards per carry. He was good against good opponents (his 161.7 passer rating against ranked teams ranked fourth in FBS) and did borderline illegal things against bad opponents; in back-to-back games against Cincinnati and ECU last year, he completed a combined 37 of 46 passes for 698 yards, seven touchdowns, and no picks. Passer rating: 258.1.

His receiving corps has a couple of holes, but lots of candidates. Smith and Akins both went pro, but Snelson (695 receiving yards, 11.2 per target) is back, as are Davis, Anderson, Stewart (who got lost in the shuffle in 2017), another dynamic sophomore (Marlon Williams), and a few players who sat all or most of 2017: sophomore Jaquarius Bargnare (torn ACL), former four-star prospect Tristan Payton (suspended for part of the year), Ole Miss transfer and former four-star Tre Nixon, and Wisconsin tight end transfer Jake Hescock.

Throw in a couple of high-three-star recruits (sophomore Emmanuel Logan-Greene and freshman Ke’Von Ahmad), and you’ve got a receiving corps potentially better than the Missouri corps that generated more than 4,000 passing yards and an SEC-record 44 touchdown passes last year.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Temple
Adrian Killins Jr.
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The backfield is nearly as exciting. Killins is small but sturdy, and Anderson is lightning in open space (another small sophomore, Greg McRae is pretty electric as well), and the presence of 210-pound backup Taj McGowan, should give UCF a few size options when necessary — even after Hamilton’s transfer to James Madison.

Plus, the line returns five players with a combined 79 career starts between them (including first-team all-AAC center Jordan Johnson and second-team all-AAC tackle Wyatt Miller) and adds Notre Dame transfer Parker Boudreaux and four-star JUCO transfer Trevor Elbert to the mix.

Goodness, that’s a bounty. You never want to fall into the “They lost an amazing coach, and they’re going to be even better!!” trap — things rarely play out that way — but Heupel and Milton have track records. Even if it’s merely a top-10 offense, this unit will be devastating.

Defense

2017 UCF defensive radar

The defense, however, has some holes to fill. Heupel brought in veteran coordinator Randy Shannon, and while there’s plenty of talent, it’s impossible not to start without talking about who’s gone.

  • Do-everything linebacker Shaquem Griffin (13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four passes defensed), one of the most inspirational players in football, is off to join his brother with the Seattle Seahawks.
  • Corner Mike Hughes committed to UCF right before the season, then defensed 15 passes and pulled off the most important kickoff return in school history in one of the best games of 2017.
  • Ends Tony Guerad and Jamiyus Pittman combined for 16.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. Linebacker Chequan Burkett added another 4.5 and 1.5.

Really, losing only five starters from the defense of your best team ever isn’t that bad, but Griffin and Hughes were massive difference-makers, and that was on a defense that saw its Def. S&P+ rating fall pretty far from the year before.

Still, Shannon’s got some decent tools to work with. Linebackers Pat Jasinski and Titus Davis each took part in at least 20 run stuffs, and in replacing Griffin and Burkett, juniors Nate Evans and Shawn Burgess-Becker (an Alabama transfer) and sophomore Eric Mitchell might be ready for larger roles.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Auburn vs Central Florida
A.J. Wooten (54) and Pat Jasinski (56)
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The linebackers will have a couple of man-mountains eating blockers: 330-pound Trysten Hill and 313-pound Joey Connors combined for 7.5 TFLs and four pass breakups while occupying opposing linemen. The front seven depth chart could include quite a few redshirt freshmen, but the group does still have known quantities.

When UCF had issues last year, it came with breakdowns in the passing game. UCF ranked 24th in passing success rate but only 122nd in passing IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of successful plays allowed. In other words, the Knights didn’t give up that many big plays, but the ones they allowed were huge.

Overall, UCF ranked second in the AAC in success rate but only ninth in IsoPPP.

2017 UCF defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Hughes is the only departure in the backfield; he was a risk-taker who made those risks pay off pretty often. Sophomore corner Brandon Moore was inconsistent but occasionally disruptive (2.5 TFLs, nine passes defensed), but the key might be another sophomore: Alabama transfer Aaron Robinson.

The 6’1, 185-pound Robinson looked the part this spring, and if he is ready for a starting role, then the combination of Robinson, Moore, and junior Nevelle Clarke at corner, combined with senior safeties Tre Neal and Kyle Gibson, could create a unit that is steadier, if slightly less disruptive, than last year’s secondary.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Memphis at Central Florida
Tre Neal (23)
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Hughes was by far the best thing UCF’s special teams unit had going for it, scoring three touchdowns and averaging more than 16 yards per punt return and 31 yards per kick return. UCF still only ranked 52nd in Special Teams S&P+ with him, so losing him will put pressure on not only the new return men, but also punter Mac Loudermilk (54th in punt efficiency) and kicker Matthew Wright (97th in kickoff efficiency) to make up the difference in the field position game. Wright’s a super steady place-kicker, at least.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug at Connecticut 124 26.1 93%
8-Sep SC State NR 55.8 100%
15-Sep at North Carolina 51 7.6 67%
21-Sep Florida Atlantic 31 7.7 67%
29-Sep Pittsburgh 45 11.7 75%
6-Oct SMU 74 17.3 84%
13-Oct at Memphis 42 6.3 64%
20-Oct at East Carolina 125 26.5 94%
1-Nov Temple 81 18.3 85%
10-Nov Navy 85 19.7 87%
17-Nov Cincinnati 88 20.3 88%
23-Nov at USF 56 8.9 70%
Projected S&P+ Rk 17
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 3 / 75
Projected wins 9.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.9 (65)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 66 / 67
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 17 / 8.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (71%, 76%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 11.7 (1.3)

Long-term, runs like UCF’s won’t help to get any future G5 teams into the four-team CFP field. But as we anticipate bracket creep to eight teams at some point in the future, these runs are the only things that could help to guarantee G5 teams a seat at that new table. The chest-puffing won’t hurt.

In five years, the AAC has produced only one unbeaten team; this is a tricky minefield, and even last year’s awesome UCF barely survived it, needing late heroics to get by USF and Memphis. So the odds of the Knights pulling it off again with a new head coach and new defensive leaders are small.

They’re going to have a chance, though. S&P+ projects UCF 17th overall and favors them by at least 6.3 points in every game on the schedule. It gives them a 7.2 percent chance of going 12-0 — those are about the best odds any team’s going to have.

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