Team: UCF Knights
2014 record: 9-4 (7-1 AAC)
Recap: Central Florida has been an annual contender in either the Conference USA or American Athletic Conference in five of the last six years, winning the AAC title in 2013 and finishing as a co-champion in 2014.
But there was some noticeable regression from the Knights last season following their remarkable 12-win Fiesta Bowl run the year before, mostly surrounding an offense that saw departures from quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson. The scoring offense dropped from 34.6 points per game (No. 2 in AAC) to 28.1 (No. 5 in AAC), and their yards per play suffered (6.56 to 5.01).
With just 10 starters returning in 2015—this time the impact of departures being even greater—UCF is set to take another step back before it can regroup and one again become a Group of Five power.
Key player: Thomas Niles, RS Sr., DE
Niles, who was voted on to the All-AAC second team last season, went under the radar as one of the defense’s most important pieces to a unit that ranked fifth nationally in total yards (298.5), despite his team-leading 13.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. With so much NFL talent gone to the next level, by default Niles claims the anchor role for a new-look defense and will be expected to make some big plays this fall.
Biggest strength: Run defense
There are some big-time shoes to fill on defense, from middle linebacker Terrance Plummer to the entire secondary, which was loaded with NFL talent. Still, Niles and a stout middle between tackles Demetris Anderson and Lance McDowdell, along with linebackers Chequan Burkett and Errol Clarke, should be able to keep a run defense that allowed 3.14 yards per carry (t-8th in NCAA) and 10 touchdowns (t-5th) mostly the same. The run was taken away from opponents last season, who were forced to test a ridiculously athletic secondary … how that fares with four new starters is in question.
Biggest weakness: Passing game
Justin Holman was mostly hit or miss during his sophomore campaign, posting six games with no interceptions and five with two or more. Though an experienced offensive line and backfield returning to the field should help his development, the loss of all three top wide receivers Breshad Perriman (50 receptions, 1,044 yards, 9 touchdowns in 2014), Josh Reese (39/552/6), and J.J. Worton (36/514/5) puts a serious question mark next to UCF’s passing game. Jordan Akins, a true sophomore and former minor league baseball player, is the team’s most experienced receiver. He had 12 receptions as a freshman.
Most important game: at Temple (Oct. 17)
Assuming UCF is 4-2 at this point with two losses to Stanford and South Carolina, this matchup could be vital in determining whether the Knights will contend for the AAC East in 2015. A win sits them firm at 3-0 in the conference with a tough stretch of Houston, at Cincinnati, at Tulsa, and ECU ahead.
Best-case scenario: 9-3 (7-1)
George O’Leary has built a solid foundation underneath UCF’s football program, so that when the starting roster takes a few major hits, the blueprint itself never crumbles. It’s highly unlikely that the Knights are able to keep up with other conference heavyweights, but having early tests against Power Five opponents Stanford and South Carolina could have long-term benefits when it comes to late-season endeavors.
Worst-case scenario: 5-7 (3-5)
Even with a top-10 worthy defense, UCF still finished 7th in the American with a -1 turnover margin. Now that the defense is set to regress and there are concerns with a lack of viable playmakers via the pass, the Knights could fall even further in this category. A few more turnovers (or less forced) could have meant a five- or six-win season in 2014, so this really isn’t all that unrealistic—they’d just have to be pretty unlucky.
Early prediction: 7-5 (5-3)
The offseason departures shouldn’t be considered insurmountable, but they are significant enough to call this a slight rebuilding year for a coach that has won nine games or more the last three years. Seven wins doesn’t make you a conference contender, but it does mean a bowl game for the fourth straight season and plenty of confidence heading into a promising 2016 season.