UCF vs GT | Sept. 19 | 3:30 p.m. ET
ORLANDO, FLORIDA (UCF Knights) – Coming off the longest, strangest offseason in college football history, the 2020 UCF season is slated to begin in a week.
It’s the latest start in history for a UCF football season since a Sept. 22 opener at St. Leo in the Knights’ initial varsity season in 1979.
UCF’s scheduled Oct. 3 home opener versus Tulsa qualifies as the latest the Knights have ever played at home for the first time in a season since 2001 (Oct. 6 versus UAB following four straight road games to begin the campaign).
With that as a backdrop, here are 20 questions to consider (some with answers) as UCF heads into 2020:
1.What do the UCF schedule changes mean? This one can’t truly be answered until the regular season ends, but reality says the various decisions made by conferences and individual institutions cost the Knights three home games–North Carolina, FIU and FAMU. (On a side note, maybe no two programs have experienced a weirder home-and-home series than UCF and North Carolina—with neither game played, one lost to a hurricane in 2018 and the other, in essence, to a pandemic.) The positive in 2020 is that the nine games for UCF are perfectly spaced (even with five of the nine on the road)–with three games, then an open date (Oct. 10), three more games, then a second open date (Nov. 7), then the final three games.
2. Can the Knights keep scoring? No team has been as prolific as UCF in this regard of late—with the Knights qualifying as the lone NCAA FBS team to average at least 43.2 points per game each of the last three seasons.
3. And can UCF keep gaining yards? UCF and Oklahoma have been the most productive in that category (total offense) the last three seasons. UCF set a program high in 2019 (540.5 yards per game) and averaged 522.7 or more each of the last three years. The Sooners were at 537.6 or more each of those seasons (leading the nation in 2017 and 2018).
4. What will the UCF staff changes mean? A year ago the Knights were one of a handful of programs in the country with no changes in their full-time staff lineup from 2018. This time, there are two new names—one from inside the program (Joey Halzle was elevated to quarterback coach) and one from outside (co-offensive coordinator and tight end coach Alex Golesh came from Iowa State). Golesh’s perspective will be particularly interesting since he’s completely new to the UCF scene. It’s almost like having a full new perspective on the self-scouting aspect.
5. Will the Knights’ offense look much different? How will the input of Golesh and Halzle play out in terms of the look and feel of the UCF offensive unit? Head coach Josh Heupel remains the ultimate play-caller, but his in-game input will be coming from some new colleagues—with Golesh and running backs coach Anthony Tucker now serving as co-offensive coordinators.
6. Will winning games continue to be contagious? The Knights have spoiled their fans of late, going 33-4 over the past three years combined (including a 28-game regular-season win streak). Even the four defeats came by an average of 3.7 points.
7. Have the Knights shed their new-kids-on-the-block reputation? A few short years ago UCF burst onto the national scene just two seasons removed from an 0-12 campaign. Now UCF has three straight 10-win campaigns on its resume, putting the Knights up there with the Alabamas and Clemsons in terms of combined wins over that span. So UCF doesn’t seem quite so capable of sneaking up on anyone any longer based on their caliber of play over time.
8. Can UCF win the AAC title? It won’t be easy. American Athletic Conference head coaches spent much of early 2019 trying to tell the world that the league featured more good teams than it was given credit for. Then Memphis finished 12-2, Navy 11-2, Cincinnati 11-3 and UCF and SMU both 10-3. The Knights are the 2020 preseason AAC pick by the league’s media, for what that’s worth.
9. How will the Knights survive the losses of Gabriel Davis, Jordan Johnson, Nevelle Clarke, Adrian Killins, Nate Evans, Brendon Hayes and Jake Brown? Davis and Brown were first-team all-AAC picks in 2019, while Killins, Evans and Hayes made the second team. How their replacements fare will impact 2020 significantly.
10. How quickly can Matt Lee fit in at center? The local product (Oviedo, Florida) is highly regarded, though he sat out all of 2019 as a true freshman. He’s now replacing a player—Jordan Johnson—who took virtually every significant snap at that position over the last four seasons.
11. Can the Knights continue their defensive disruption? UCF led the nation in tackles for loss last fall (9.0 per game) and finished third in team pass efficiency defense and fifth in third-down defense. Up front, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon helped accomplish that by platooning waves of defensive linemen during games (among graduated TFL leaders are Nate Evans at 13.0 and Brendon Hayes at 10.0).
12. Will that quick-strike look be there again? UCF ranked 123rd out of 128 FBS teams in 2019 in time of possession. That normally would seem to portend problems—but not for the Knights. They reveled in the ability to score in rapid fashion (21 scoring drives of less than a minute, only 17 of three or more minutes).
13. How will Dillion Gabriel look compared to his rookie season? Let’s face it, Gabriel was awfully good as a true freshman, ranking 13th nationally in both passing yards and passing efficiency and fourth in yards per completion. He helped the Knights win 10 games and didn’t throw an interception in any of the 10.
14. Will there be a substitute for Adrian Killins’ pure speed? The wild card may be Oklahoma transfer Jaylon Robinson, who sat out last season. There’s a reason his nickname is “Flash.” And he’s officially listed as an inch and a pound different than Killins. Just a coincidence?
15. What about the consistent productivity of Gabe Davis? The fact Davis has been opening eyes at the NFL Buffalo Bills training camp shouldn’t surprise any UCF fans. He did all the things required to be successful at the collegiate level. The Knights’ wide receiving corps is hardly devoid of talent (Tre Nixon, Marlon Williams, Jacob Harris and Ryan O’Keefe among the top returnees). Otis Anderson is a proven pass-catcher and Jaylon Robinson could be in for a break-out season.
16. Is there likely to be a more valuable all-purpose performer than Otis Anderson? He has been around long enough that he scored a TD in UCF’s Peach Bowl win over Auburn to cap the 2017 championship season. Last year he ran the ball 15 times more than any other Knight, caught 31 passes and paced the Knights in punt returns. He’s already the AAC career leader in punt-return average for both a season and a career.
17. Will this bizarre COVID-induced offseason affect Josh Heupel’s team? Only time will tell. Spring football went by in a snap (four workouts for the Knights). The NCAA replaced that with 10 extra August sessions that included walk-throughs. Every team in the country has taken measures to keep the virus at bay during preseason workouts. So, it will be interesting for UCF, Georgia Tech and everyone else to see who can hit the ground running as if the last six months had been routine.
18. How does the 2020 UCF AAC schedule rate? With the Knights picked by the media to win the league, they face both the teams picked second (Cincinnati in Orlando) and third (Memphis at the Liberty Bowl). But UCF does not face either the fourth- or fifth-rated teams (SMU and Navy). With Connecticut now playing as an independent in football, the AAC has scrapped its two-division format and in 2020 will pit the top two finishers in the conference championship game.
19. Who are UCF’s biggest boosters these days? Both college football magazine publisher Phil Steele and Associated Press national college football editor Ralph Russo predicted the Knights would make the four-team College Football Playoff (as the #4 qualifier, facing #1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal). Russo also listed Dillon Gabriel as one of his top five Heisman Trophy candidates.
20. Can the UCF offensive linemen be the unsung heroes? For all the flash and dash of the Knights on offense, running success has been its core the last two years (a school-record rushing average in 2018 and a 19th-ranked attack in 2019). Center Jordan Johnson and tackle Jake Brown graduated from UCF’s 2019 lineup—so can the Knights fill in the gaps? UCF again boasts great depth among running backs—with Greg McCrae, Otis Anderson, Bentavious Thompson—and highly-regarded newcomers Damarius Good and freshman Johnny Richardson. Sam Jackson, Cole Schneider and Parker Boudreaux are the most experienced returnees.
CLICK HERE FOR BREVARD COUNTY NEWS