It’s kind of a wonder that Scott Frost wasn’t named 2016 American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. That’s in no way saying that Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo didn’t deserve the honor, but Frost, in just one year, lifted UCF from an 0-12 disaster to a bowl participant.
Perhaps what went against the Knights is the fact that they didn’t really beat anybody good, with their best win of the season coming against Tulane or Cincinnati, which both finished just 4-8. Their other wins came against South Carolina State, Florida International, East Carolina and UConn. While they did nearly upset Temple, and kept the game within striking distance against Maryland and Houston, they never got that marquee win, which meant they were not given the credit they might have deserved.
In 2017, they’ll have a chance to take another step forward, although another six-win improvement would mean that Frost deserves all of the awards.
What They Do Well
Frost had such a good first year because he used what UCF had rather than trying to force his own system without considering the roster he had to work with. To that end, UCF was a solid defensive team even under the former Oregon offensive coordinator. The Knights ranked 30th in the country in defensive S&P+. They were behind only Temple, Houston and Tulane in total defense (370.3 YPG). This is where we must begin talking about Shaquem Griffin, the 2016 AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He devastated opposing offenses to the tune of 20.0 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. With Griffin leading the way, the Knights tied with conference champ Temple for the most tackles for loss in the league (103).
UCF also helped itself by playing well on special teams, ranking 13th in the country in special teams S&P+. The Knights were the only team in the conference to return both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown. They didn’t lead the league in the more standard metrics (punting, field goals etc.), but they rarely made mistakes and made sure they didn’t hurt themselves in the third phase of the game.
What They Don’t Do Well
You’ll notice I didn’t mention anything about the offense in the section above. Despite the upstart play of freshman McKenzie Milton and wide receiving exploits of Tre’Quan Smith, the Knights ranked 10th in the conference in total offense and 117th in the country in offensive S&P+.
Some struggles in pass protection made for difficult times, as the Knights allowed 36 sacks in 2016, which was better than only two other teams in the conference (Houston and UConn). Obviously, Houston showed that giving up a heaping of sacks can be overcome, but UCF fell more on the UConn side of the spectrum.
Players to Watch
Shaquem Griffin, LB
Nobody sacked more quarterbacks that Griffin among AAC defenders last season, a breakout one for the redhsirt junior from St. Petersburg, Florida. An easy favorite for AAC DPOTY honors, Griffin is an excellent pass rusher but he can also play well in coverage.
McKenzie Milton, QB
He only threw for 1,983 yards and 10 touchdowns, but Milton showed flashes of talent, throwing for 317 yards and three scores against UConn, while being more elusive than his 158 total rushing yards would indicate.
Tre’Quan Smith, WR
No player on the team had more than 400 receiving yards other than Smith, who put up an impressive stat line despite a less than stellar passing attack. He brought in 57 passes for 853 yards and five touchdowns in 2016 and will be the No. 1 option for Milton.
Tony Guerad, DL
The Knights lost Errol Clarke and Mark Rucker, but Guerad is back to instill fear into opposing backfields with Griffin. The 297-pound defensive lineman had 10 tackles for loss last season and 3.5 sacks to boot.
Do They Play Cincinnati?
Yup. On Oct. 7 in Nippert Stadium. As mentioned above, UCF beat Cincinnati last season, cruising to a 24-3 decision. UC got the better of the Knights the year prior, winning 52-7 at home. Let’s hope for more of that.
Griffin is awesome. Smith is awesome. Milton could be awesome. That’s a decent foundation for a team that just went bowling. However, the schedule does zero favors for the Knights, especially if SMU improves. UCF will be competitive, sure, but anything more than what they did last year, record wise, is too much to ask. Another six wins for Frost and company.