UCF football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Knights, best players and season prediction.
What in the world was that?
UCF delivered a ridiculously improbable season in 2015, joining Kansas as the only two FBS teams to finish without a victory. Kansas, understandable. The Knights? No one saw it coming.
The wheels flew off for George O’Leary and UCF, which had won 31 games, an American title and a memorable Fiesta Bowl over Baylor in the previous three years. And while there was no Blake Bortles leading last year’s team, there was absolutely no warning that this once-mighty Group of Five program would go wire-to-wire without a single win. For all of the great things O’Leary had achieved in Orlando, his time had passed. Enter a new era. Enter Scott Frost from Oregon.
Landing Frost was a coup for equally precocious AD Danny White, who was hired by the university just a couple of weeks earlier. The 41-year-old Frost is an emerging superstar, fresh off a successful stint as the Duck offensive coordinator. He’s smart, he’s learned from some of the best coaches in the game and his energy and offensive ingenuity will quickly restore the excitement at UCF. A lack of local knowledge aside, Frost is the perfect answer to the prior regime.
But rebounding from a winless campaign won’t happen overnight, so fans and boosters will need to exercise patience in 2016.
Last year’s roster was not an 0-12 squad, yet there is ground to make up in terms of personnel, especially since the systems are changing. Frost plans to run a very fast attack akin to the one he oversaw in Eugene, but the next Marcus Mariota won’t be walking out of the Bright House Networks Stadium tunnel anytime soon and conditioning is a work-in-progress.
If UCF is going to compete at a higher level this season, it’ll likely be on the back of a defense with a decent corps of returning players. The Knights have a reputation for defensive prowess, and there are enough returning starters to feel optimistic about a bounce back campaign in 2016.
UCF was due for a new direction at the top. In fact, the silver lining to last season’s implosion was that it hastened administrative changes that resulted in the hiring of one of the rising stars of the coaching ranks. The Knights are not far removed from being one of the premier Group of Five programs in America. Frost was brought aboard to make sure 2015 was an aberration rather than a prolonged pivot in the wrong direction.
What You Need to Know About the UCF Offense
Scott Frost is the new head coach, so the long-term goal is to be a fast-paced, no-huddle, East Coast version of Oregon. That’s the plan, but everyone associated with the program realizes it’ll be a long time before Quack Attack comparisons are being made in Orlando.
The Knights were feeble in 2015, averaging fewer than 14 points per game, so the hiring of Frost was both timely and wise. He’ll get this thing turned around, but it’s going to take a couple of recruiting classes before the gains are fully realized. In the meantime, UCF must decide on a quarterback, likely Justin Holman or Nick Patti, to work with a young group of skill players.
The Knights can get to the perimeter with WR Tre’Quan Smith and RB Taj McGowan, and tight ends Jordan Akins and Jordan Franks will factor in prominently. The offensive assistant with the toughest job will be Greg Austin, who must develop the technique of a middling collection of blockers.
Biggest Key To The UCF Offense
Frost’s first quarterback. Rookie head coach Scott Frost wants to move fast with the ball. But he’s going to take his time naming a starting quarterback. The Knights have quantity behind center, at least a half-dozen competitors, but not a lot of quality, so another round of evaluations is necessary. There was some separation in the spring, with veterans Justin Holman and Nick Patti nudging ahead. Holman has the longest resume, but is better suited for a pro-style attack. Patti is more mobile, having played wide receiver and operated the “Wild Knight” attack in 2015.
What You Need to Know About the UCF Defense
The Knights were unusually weak on defense in 2015, a decline partly attributable to the offense’s ineptitude. Coordinator Erik Chinander is on board to gradually coach the team back to its typical standards. Chinander will operate out of a 3-4 base, willing to take chances and cut loose to create turnovers.
UCF was light on big plays of any kind a year ago, particularly takeaways. A rebound for this unit isn’t farfetched because the talent is still pretty solid. Tackles Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad possess the quickness to get into the backfield, and the defensive backfield returns intact.
What Chinander really needs is a couple of ends and outside linebackers to ratchet up the heat off the edge. The Knights produced just 16 sacks last season, only 2.5 of which came from defensive ends. While A.J. Wooten flashed in April, it was April, and he’s going to need a lot more help in September.
Biggest Key To The UCF Defense
Adjusting to a new base. After years of operating out of a 4-3 set, incoming coordinator Erik Chinander has shifted to a 3-4 alignment. While it sounds benign enough, it’ll require a handful of Knight linemen and linebackers to learn new positions. A handful of former ends, for instance, will be moving back a level to outside linebacker, while additional girth up front is being sought from the holdovers, recent recruits and junior college transfers.
UCF Will Be Far Better If …
the defense locates its mojo. Everything fell apart during the winless 2015 campaign. Everything. But it was the collapse of the defense, long the staple of this program, that really caught everyone in Orlando off guard. After a solid decade of shutting down opponents with speed and tenacity, UCF uncharacteristically allowed 37.7 points per game last fall. There are enough veterans and quality athletes for the Knights to make a decent defensive recovery in 2016.
Best Offensive Player
Sophomore WR Tre’Quan Smith. For all of the problems that the new staff is facing this season, quality hands doesn’t figure to be one of them. Led by Smith, who rose above a rancid support staff in his debut, the Knights will have plenty of good options and great size at wide receiver and tight end. He can get separation and make plays on bad balls, a particular plus considering the current state of the UCF quarterbacks.
Best Defensive Player
Junior DT Jamiyus Pittman. The Knight D-line was hit hard by graduations and Luke Adams’ decision to retire. Now, while depth won’t be as big of a concern now that the 3-4 is being employed, there could be a talent vacuum. Enter Pittman, who played very well a year ago and is preparing for even greater responsibility in 2016. He has the strength to line up at the nose and the quickness to play outside, pending the specific needs of the front wall.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Sophomore RB Taj McGowan. No single player is going to elevate a program with as many problems as UCF. But considering how much of a priority is being placed on running the ball, it’ll help everyone if McGowan takes the next step in his development. Ditto sophomore C.J. Jones and senior Dontravious Wilson who are also competing for touches in a hotly contested battle. McGowan showed flashes as a rookie, though horrible line play lessened everyone’s potential.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Knights pick up three wins. Baby steps for a program that’ll carry a 13-game losing streak into the must-win opener with FCS South Carolina State. With fresh energy and some decent defensive talent in Orlando, there ought to be three wins on the schedule. Still, considering where UCF was in 2015 and what challenges lie ahead, progress today will be defined less in wins and losses and more by how the team is playing in November.
Sept. 24 at Florida International. The Knights were winless in 2015, yet they’ll have a realistic shot of being 2-2 when conference play begins on Oct. 1. After opening with South Carolina State, Michigan and Maryland, a trip to Miami to play the Panthers will tell plenty about how well the new staff prepared this offseason. FIU shocked UCF in last season’s opener, so even a win over a mediocre Conference USA team will provide an important shot in the arm for the Knights.
2015 Fun Stats
– Points per game: UCF 13.9 – Opponents 37.7
– Turnovers: UCF 33 – Opponents 13
– Third-down%: UCF 29% – Opponents 47%