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Opponent Preview: UCF Knights

The defending “national champions” have a new head coach and another roster built to dominate the AAC.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Memphis at Central Florida Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

It’s pretty crazy that the 2018 College Football National Champions came out of the American Athletic Conference. I think we, and by we I mean every person that follows college football, is in complete agreement that the UCF Knights won the national title last year by virtue of their perfect 13-0 season.

What’s that? You remember watching the Alabama Crimson Tide raise the national championship trophy after beating the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff finals? Hmm. You must be remembering that incorrectly. Nick Saban is as well.

In all seriousness, the UCF Knights had a brilliant 2017 season and regardless of which way you feel about who the “real” 2017 national champion is, that can’t be taken away from them. The Knights won all 13 games they played, including their win over the Auburn Tigers in the Peach Bowl.

What is even more impressive about that year was the fact that just a couple seasons ago, the Knights lost every game on the schedule. I guess hiring Scott Frost ended up working out for the Knights.

That brings us to the bad news. Frost is gone. He left to take the head coaching gig at Nebraska. In his place is Josh Heupel, who was previously the offensive coordinator at Missouri. This will be the former Oklahoma quarterback’s first time as a head coach. You couldn’t really ask for a better situation to start that journey... or maybe you could. After all, the Knights had a perfect season in 2017 so they can only really go down from there. But even if they don’t win 13 games again, they are still going to very good, they probably just won’t win “national championship.”

When Do They Play Cincinnati?

This is the penultimate game of the season for both the Bearcats and the Knights. Set on Nov. 17 in Orlando, UCF will go on to finish the regular season at USF and the Bearcats will play East Carolina.

What They Do Well

On a basic level, win games of football. I seriously considered just leaving that and moving to the next section, but that would be lazy and I am not... well I am, but I’ll push through.

You can really take your pick when it comes to strengths of this team. The Knights scored an incredible amount of points, averaging 48.2 points per game. To put that in Bearcat context, UC hasn’t scored more than 40 points since 2015. UCF averaged nearly 50.

It’s easy to score points when you can throw the ball like UCF can. Led by 2017 American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year McKenzie Milton, the Knights averaged 331.8 passing yards per game. Milton threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns while completing 67.1 percent of his passes. He also recorded a 11.1 adjusted yards per attempt average and even ranked second on the team with 613 rushing yards. He is back and the UCF offense, which ranked second in the country in offensive S&P+ last year, will be all the better for it. According to SB Nation’s most recent projections, they are going to slip a whole one (1) spot this season.

UCF’s offense has the star skill position players, but perhaps the most critical part of the group is the offensive line, which is certainly the best the Bearcats will contend with this season. The Knights allowed only 13.0 sacks a year ago, which tied for the fifth-fewest in the nation.

Don’t forget UCF’s strength in ball protection and on third down. UCF only turned the ball over 15 times and tied for second in the AAC in third down conversion rate (45.45) while being put into third down circumstances less than anyone else in the league.

Jumping off those very few turnovers they fell victim to, UCF racked up 32 forced turnovers, including 20 interceptions, which helped it have a turnover margin of +17. Only Wyoming had a better one nationally. It will be interesting to see how well UCF can keep that up since all-league cornerback Mike Hughes (who also helped UCF have exceptional kick and punt returning) is now playing for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.

What They Don’t Do Well

UCF’s defense was fine last year, but not an elite group, even if it did have some exceptionally talented contributors like Shaquem Griffin, Jamiyus Pittman and Hughes. Unfortunately, those three guys, and a few others, are gone so an already average unit may take a further step back. In those same projections I mentioned earlier, UCF is ranked 87th in the country in defensive S&P+.

It will be important for the Knights to limit their penalties better than they did last year since the margin for error will be smaller. UCF was penalized 8.4 times per game, which was the third-most in the conference.

Players to Watch

McKenzie Milton, QB

He’s the best quarterback in the AAC and a legitimate Heisman candidate.

Adrian Killins Jr., RB

As a sophomore, Killins was named an all-AAC first team member. He rushed for 790 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry.

Otis Anderson, RB/WR

Anderson is a multi-talented player. Last year he amassed 494 yards on the ground and 351 yards through the air, along with seven total touchdowns.

Dredrick Snelson, WR

With the departure of leading receiver Tre’Quan Smith and all-league tight end Jordan Akins, Snelson will be getting more targets. He caught 46 balls for 695 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore.

Pat Jasinski, LB

Lost among all the great UCF defenders was Jasinski. All he did was lead the team in tackles (104), while adding 8.0 tackles for loss.

Kyle Gibson, S

Gibson is going to keep the ball-hawking trend going. He had four interceptions last year and added 64 tackles.

Jordan Johnson, OL

A first-team all-conference center last year, Johnson will keep UCF protecting Milton at a high level.

Wyatt Miller, OL

What an underachiever. Miller was “only” a second-team all-conference lineman,

Matthew Wright, K

Wright was the second-best kicker in the AAC last year. He connected on 13-of-18 field goal tries and also hit 80-of-81 extra points.

Series History

UC was one of the many teams to beat up on the 2015 Knights, stomping them 52-7. UCF has taken its revenge and then some, winning the last two games by a combined score of 75-26. Those are the only three matchups between the two programs.

Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?

Apparently.

A lot of people are very high on UCF basketball for the 2018-19 season. However, both games the Bearcats and Knights played last year were almost unwatchable from an objective standpoint. First they competed in a rock fight for the ages, with UC winning 49-38, and then the Bearcats ran the Knights out of town, 77-40. But if the prognosticators are to be believed, UC/UCF basketball games will be must see TV this coming year.

Prediction Time!

I’m not going to mince words here. UCF is going to win this game.