And now, time to follow up on a perfect 2017. That’s it. That’s all.
How do you equal, much less top, last season’s 13-0 record with a New Year’s Day Peach Bowl triumph over SEC power Auburn?
Well, UCF has that task and their first steps begin Saturday afternoon with their Spring game in Orlando.
The good news for the Knights is that despite a new coaching staff, they’ve got the most talented, proven playmaking quarterback in the state to lead them. And, he begins our three things to watch.
McKenzie Milton is back
The talented junior QB from Hawaii is at the controls after a 2017 that was literally one for the UCF record books. He set the new UCF highs for passing yards, completion percentage and touchdown passes (35) in a single season. And, being the dual threat that he is, Milton ran for another 497 yards and seven more TD’s on the campaign.
He also threw a record five TD passes in the Knights thrilling double OT American Conference Title Game win over Memphis last December. Milton is a preseaon possibility for AAC player of the year and also going to get early Heisman consideration, if he performs well. Now, can he live up to expectations?
New coach Josh Heupel and his staff lead the Knights for the first time
Heupel is a former National Championship winning quarterback from Oklahoma, and most recently, was the very successful offensive coordinator for Missouri in 2017. Last season, the Mizzou offense broke records themselves, including QB Drew Lock breaking the SEC single season touchdown pass record, and also the Missouri single game TD pass record with seven.
Scott Frost did an amazing job resurrecting UCF from a winless 0-12 in 2015 to an unbeaten 13-0 just two years later. In the History of NCAA football a school had never been at least 0-10 in a season and then at least 10-0 two seasons after that. Well, as you now know, Frost moved on to coach his alma matter, Nebraska.
So, Heupel takes the baton. He will call the plays and former Miami Hurricanes coach and last year’s Gators defensive coordinator and interim head coach Randy Shannon is the new Knights defensive coordinator.
Will be able to sustain the level of play on both sides of the ball? That’s a good question.
Replacing Stars on both sides
As with any successful college program, you have good and even, great, players, but they eventually move from graduation to leaving for NFL dreams. The Knights have three such players off last year’s outstanding team that are now gone and maybe drafted fairly soon in the upcoming NFL Draft.
First, Milton’s favorite target, Tre’Quan Smith left a year early after a spectacular 2017 where he caught for over 1,300 yards. He is projected to be a 2nd-3rd round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Who will step up starting with this Spring game to replace that production?
On defense, the intriguing story of LB/safety Shaquem Griffin culminated with him winning the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, and starring in the Peach Bowl win with two sacks. He’s now gone, but has a great portion of the NFL fans are now aware of his story and rooting for him to get selected in the NFL on the second or third day of the draft.
And finally, you lost arguably the best defensive back in the American Conference, Mike Hughes. Hughes has excellent speed and cover skills and may end up being a first round pick himself in two weeks. He also was an explosive kick returner, including his game winning TD return to beat arch rival USF last November.
These names won’t be easy to forget, but others must now start trying to take their places.
ESPN announces “College Gameday” coming for UCF-Cincinnati
They’re comin’ — to our cit-taaaaaay!
ESPN College GameDay — whose first road trip was connected to another team in the state of Florida, 25 years ago — will pay a visit to UCF. Kirk Herbstreit was part of the announcement on social media:
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) November 11, 2018
The visit makes sense on a weekend in which the amount of high-profile games is sparse: UCF-Cincinnati joins Notre Dame-Syracuse and Iowa State-Texas as the only especially appetizing matchups. ND-Syracuse is being played in a baseball stadium in very cold weather. Iowa State-Texas is on the Longhorn Network. UCF deserved this spotlight, and it will now receive it.
You know what’s coming: The GameDay crew will talk about UCF’s place in the College Football Playoff race, and about the need for college football to give the Group of 5 champion a spot in the playoff. You also know that McKenzie Milton will get some Heisman publicity.
This visit heightens the tensions surrounding UCF’s journey to a second consecutive unbeaten regular season. It raises the stakes for this game against Cincinnati, the one team with an especially legitimate chance of overtaking UCF in the AAC East Division now that South Florida has turned into a pumpkin, as many people suspected it would. (Temple is still alive in the East race, but it lost to UCF head to head and therefore has a narrow path to a possible division title.)
It is entirely understandable for UCF fans to get very emotional and anxious about the playoff debate — ESPN and GameDay will unavoidably intensify that larger theater of discussion and argument. Yet, with the spotlight falling on the Knights in a new and profound way, they must shut out the noise and do the one thing which exists in their power to achieve: WIN.
That’s it. WIN. Just win, baby.
Would it be awesome if Milton throws for 500 yards and six touchdowns?
Would it be fantastic if UCF crushes Cincy by 40 points?
Of course… but this isn’t about padding a stat sheet. This isn’t about “We Want Bama!”
This is about continuing to be a bunch of winners… which UCF has unfailingly managed to sustain for nearly two full seasons.
Just win. Just lock up the AAC East. Secure the spot in the AAC title game. Then win that game. Prevent Utah State from wresting away the Group of 5 championship. Just get another high-end New Year’s Six bowl against an SEC team. Just win that game.
Everyone else in the United States will debate and argue and go mad, one way or the other.
UCF’s best revenge — its only revenge — is to keep that loss column at zero.
Let all the other chips fall where they may… and let ESPN College GameDay marvel at a team which keeps the “O” in Orlando, while adding to those wins in the “W” column.
UCF’s latest win underscores perception problems
Yes, the UCF Knights ran their win streak to 22 victories in a row Saturday afternoon at Spectrum Stadium with a solid win over Navy. And, no one can dispute that the wins keep piling up in Orlando.
However, as the second half unfolded, it was another example of what those knocking the Knights chances of crashing the College Football Playoff will point to: you weren’t impressive enough and/or you’ve had a weak schedule.
The Knights raced out to a 21-0 lead in the first half and appeared to have it on cruise control. And while they were never really threatened in the second half, they still gave up three long touchdown drives to a 2 – 7 Navy team. And, it made the final score a lot closer than it needed to be at 35 – 24.
You add this on to the national TV game with Temple 10 days ago, where the Knights were seen giving up 40 points and having to scrap into the 4th quarter to win the game over the Owls, and the critics have ammunition that you’re not looking as impressive as you should against lesser competition.
Now, it’s understood that while UCF does have QB McKenzie Milton, who is a special player leading a powerful offense, their defense clearly is not as good as what it was in 2017.
Again, it might be unfair nitpicking, but that, too, will be held against the Knights by their critics.
Further, what’s also going to be held against them is: their strength of schedule. Saturday’s game was yet another opponent that brought nothing to the table in terms of UCF’s resume’.
Coming into the weekend the Knights schedule was ranked 108th in Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today rankings.
The good news is their schedule will get a jolt playing 9-1 Cincinnati next week. It will not be helped as much as they thought two weeks from now, by a USF team that is spiraling downward over the last three games.
And then there’s an AAC Championship Game looming which will likely be against a pretty good Houston team.
Again, the critics will say not nearly good enough and not nearly as impressive
enough, even at 9-0 now.
And days like Saturday don’t give UCF much ammunition to fire back at those critics.
UCF looks for easy Saturday to lead off our college primer
The first time in several weeks all five of The prominent state school programs will be in action on Saturday. Here’s a look at the Slate of games and our primer:
UCF vs. Navy noon, Orlando
The Knights continue with the nation’s longest win streak at 22 games and should get little resistance from the Midshipmen. Navy is really struggling at 2 – 7 coming off of being blown out 42-0 by Cincinnati last week. Quarterback McKenzie Milton will have a chance to pad his stats and all but lock up the American Conference player of the year award.
Unfortunately, it continues to be the case for the Knights that their strength of schedule is not good enough to help them move up in the College Football Playoff rankings from the 12th spot. This game will probably not help in that regard.
Gators vs. South Carolina noon, Gainesville
Florida suddenly finds itself off back-to-back losses and on the verge of losing their way out of a New Year’s Day bowl game. If the Gators were contemplating started backup quarterback Kyle Trask against the Gamecocks today, that ended when he went down with a serious knee injury in Wednesday’s practice. Coach Dan Mullen could still go to freshman Emory Jones in place of Feleipe Franks and they may end up playing both quarterbacks some in this game anyway.
Former Gators coach Will Muschamp leads the Gamecocks in with a 4-3 SEC record. South Carolina won a crazy game at Ole Miss 48-44 last Saturday, as quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 363 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Florida defense will try to lock him down and help the Gators get back on the winning track-finish with a winning record in conference for 2018.
USF at Cincinnati 7 p.m., Cincinnati
The Bulls, who have been humbled in blowout losses in each of their last two games to drop to 7 – 2, have a tall task trying to beat the Bearcats in what will be a chilly Saturday night game. Cincinnati is 8-1 and as we mentioned above, had a laugher with Navy last week. Running back Michael Warren II is 69 yards away from 1,000 on the season and also has 14 touchdowns. Warren had four consecutive 100-yard games earlier in the year.
USF run defense was “swiss cheese” last week against Tulane giving up 300 yards at home, as they were beaten decisively. The game time temp will be in the low 30s and the Bulls will have to be better against the run tonight or it will be another long night for Charlie Strong’s team.
Meanwhile, if you’re at UCF fan, you very much one Cincinnati to win this game to set up the huge matchup in Orlando next week for the Knights, where the Bearcats would be 9-1 and in the top 20.
Miami at Georgia Tech 7 p.m., Atlanta
It seems to be a theme, but another reeling team is the Miami Hurricanes having been whipped by Duke at home last Saturday night, the Canes have now dropped three straight games and there are already growing calls that are now becoming more public that Mark Richt’s job is in trouble.
Now, the Hurricanes have to contend with Georgia Tech and the triple option, which has kicked into gear. The Jackets have won back-to-back games at Virginia Tech and North Carolina. And, Miami now has two be ready to tackle and fundamentally sound for this one or it could get ugly.
It appears Richt will go back to QB N’kosi Perry, the redshirt freshman, who has started a couple of times earlier in the year but has been in and out of the lineup with senior Malik Rosier. Neither quarterback has been consistent this season.
And finally, FSU at Notre Dame 7:30 p.m. South Bend, IN
As our Matt Zemek wrote yesterday, this one is not quite #1 vs. #2 “Game of the Century” of 25 years ago in South Bend. However, the Irish have done their part and are currently number three in the country aiming for the CFP Final Four.
However, they apparently will be without quarterback Ian Book. who suffered a broken rib in the win last Saturday night over Northwestern. That means Notre Dame will go to the starter that began the year Brandon Wimbush, who’s a better runner than thrower.
The bad news is Florida State’s defense has gotten no better as a season is gone on, including being wiped out by NC State last week.
The Seminoles also have a quarterback question. Having played James Blackman last week, who threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns, coach Willie Taggart has not committed as to whether Blackman will start Saturday night. Or he will go back to the starter for the previous eight games, Deondre Francois.
Most Florida State fans will be happy, if the Noles can just keep it close against the Irish.
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