A lot of coaching hires have gotten a lot of run in the lead-up to the 2018 season. One that hasn’t been talked about nearly enough in this writer’s humble opinion is Josh Heupel at UCF. The Knights lost Scott Frost to Nebraska, but Frost stayed around to lead his team to a perfect 13-0 season and a National Championship, according to the fan base. What UCF did last season was incredible. What UCF did in two years under Scott Frost, to go from 0-12 to 19-7, was remarkable. Heupel walks into a phenomenal situation, especially for a Group of Five school.
Heupel has been an offensive coordinator at Missouri and Oklahoma and has been the orchestrator of some seriously potent offenses. Experienced defensive coordinator Randy Shannon is an excellent hire to take over for Erik Chinander, who went with Frost to Lincoln. UCF may have a new coach, but 12 starters return from last year’s team, including McKenzie Milton, and this is a very intriguing team that is a deserving favorite in the AAC.
Central Florida is +120 at 5Dimes to repeat as AAC champion. BetOnline lists the Knights at +140, so, as always, shop around for the best prices. The season win total line at 5Dimes is 9.5 with the under slightly juiced at -120. BetOnline has the over at 8.5 and -180. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
|Date||Opponent||BangTheBook Line||Expected Wins|
|8/30 (T)||@ UConn||-23.5||1|
|9/8||South Carolina State||N/A||1|
|9/15||@ North Carolina||-3||.57|
|9/21 (F)||Florida Atlantic||-5||.64|
|10/20||@ East Carolina||+24||1|
|11/23 (F)||@ USF||-7||.70|
Expected Wins: 9.80
The UCFast tempo installed by Scott Frost shouldn’t slow down a whole lot with Josh Heupel. Heupel will let the team run up and down the field and he has an extremely trustworthy signal caller in McKenzie Milton. Milton, who caught Frost’s eye when he was the OC at Oregon, is 5-foot-11, which is why he’s at UCF instead of a name-brand school. Milton completed 67.1 percent of his throws last season with a 37/9 TD/INT ratio. The junior quarterback should thrive in Heupel’s offense as well, especially as a dual-threat QB with some skill position talent to work with.
Adrian Killins had 6.5 yards per carry in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, so he’s a strong feature back. The loss of Tre’Quan Smith is a bummer, as he had 13 touchdown catches, but Frost did a great job bringing in speed and athleticism and transfer Tre Nixon, originally at Ole Miss, is ready to go. UCF has to replace three starters on the offensive line, but with new schemes to learn, that isn’t a huge deal. Frost had set some transfers in motion heading into last season and those guys are now eligible. Heupel has brought in some of his own as well.
That being said, UCF isn’t going to score 48 points per game or have 7.5 yards per play. We have to have realistic expectations about this offense, but we can still acknowledge that averaging a 40 burger isn’t out of the question.
This is the unit that will define UCF’s season. The Knights are still going to score at a high rate. Will the defense stay stout? Last year’s defense allowed 5.7 yards per play, but UCF nearly doubled teams up on a per game basis, so the defense was playing prevent to keep the clock running. Shaquem Griffin is a big loss, not just from a production standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint. Leading tackler Pat Jasinski is back, but UCF is replacing a first-round draft pick in Mike Hughes in the secondary as well.
Once again, though, Heupel and DC Randy Shannon are coming into such a great situation. Frost has a great eye for talent and Erik Chinander might be the most underrated defensive coordinator in the country. There are losses and there are reasons to expect regression, but this is a really good group and Shannon has tons of major conference experience.
That September 21 game against Florida Atlantic is must-see TV. UCF has a late bye week, but opens the schedule with some opportunities to iron out the kinks against lowly UConn and South Carolina State. The road trip to North Carolina may end up telling us more about the Tar Heels than the Knights. Three home games after the bye mean that UCF has a chance to pad its record and should be a big favorite against USF in the finale.
Pick: Over 9.5 (+100, 5Dimes)
In my Major League Baseball work for BangTheBook, I talk about “degrees of regression”. Star pitchers may see their numbers rise, but not to the extent of other pitchers that exhibit the same statistical signs of regression. We know that UCF won’t go 13-0. We know that UCF won’t score 48 points per game. But we also know that they have the best QB in the conference, by a pretty decent margin, and also have a team loaded with speed, athleticism, and talent. They have two extremely experienced coordinators in Josh Heupel and Randy Shannon. This is a team set up for a lot of success and there aren’t many teams in the AAC that can provide resistance.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
One of the best stories in college football last season was the UCF Knights. Longtime head coach George O’Leary retired in the middle of a winless season in 2015 and it seemed like the program was in major disarray. Keep in mind that this is a UCF team that had Blake Bortles and had three double-digit winning seasons from 2010-13. To fall that far to go 0-12 is almost unfathomable. Given the level of talent in the Sunshine State, it wasn’t that. It was something else entirely.
Whatever it was, Scott Frost made sure that the players and the fans had a very short memory about it all. The Knights went to a bowl game last season. Again, they won zero games in 2015, but still found their way into the Cure Bowl after going 6-6 during the regular season. Frost maximized the talent that was there and got the team to believe in itself again. Heading into 2017, the Knights are young, but they are hungry, and should be much better equipped for the “UCFast” offense.
With a reasonable schedule, two years of Frost recruits, and a full offseason to get deep into the playbook, improvements are certainly possible for the Knights. 5Dimes Sportsbook has a season win total line up of 7.5 wins with the under at -125. Keep in mind that the number does not include conference championships or bowl games. It only applies to the regular season.
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
|11/24 (F)||South Florida||+9.5||0.25|
Total Expected Wins: 6.12
Sophomore McKenzie Milton is definitely a bit small to play the position. He stands just 5-foot-11, but he played big for the Knights last season. There were some serious quarterback questions in the new Scott Frost and Troy Walters offense, but Milton was the guy that gave the Knights the best chance to win. He completed 57.7 percent of his passes with a 10/7 TD/INT ratio. He also ran for 158 yards with a porous offensive line causing him to get flushed out of the pocket a bit too often. The Knights allowed 36 sacks last season, but from some holes in the new blocking schemes to the inexperience of a freshman at QB. There isn’t a whole lot of competition for Milton, so the job will be his.
Jawon Hamilton only ran for 495 yards on 139 tries as a true freshman, so we could see a lot more of true freshman Cordarrian Richardson, a battering ram of a back at 240 pounds. Another freshman looking for carries will be Bentavious Thompson, another true freshman. Frost doesn’t have a whole lot of allegiances to upperclassmen on either side of the ball and it’s in UCF’s best interest to go with youth and see what happens. Top wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith was a holdover from O’Leary’s last class and he had 57 catches last year. The offensive line is much more experienced and should have better depth to run at the pace that Frost wants.
Under constant fire because of a young offense that played at an extremely fast tempo, the UCF defense was the star of the show last year. Only allowing 24.6 points and 370 yards per game was quite an impressive feat given everything that was going on. The Knights had 15 interceptions against 16 touchdown passes and held the opposition in an offense-friendly conference to a 51.6 percent completion percentage. It wasn’t even just about great coverage. UCF only allowed 3.8 yards per carry and just 4.8 yards per play. That ranked among the best in the Group of Five conferences.
Unfortunately, a lot of talent left the program last season. Shaquil Griffin and DJ Killings combined for 26 pass breakups last year. Griffin went in the third round to Seattle. The secondary lost every starter from last season and that was truly the backbone of this defense. The heart and soul of the defense, however, remains. Shaquem Griffin had 92 tackles and 11.5 sacks last season. He also plays the game with one arm. He’s the standout star of what will be a totally rebuilt back seven. The defensive line is experienced and solid, but the pass defense numbers are sure to drop.
We’ll get a real clear picture of what UCF brings to the table with games against Memphis, Georgia Tech, and Maryland, who actually won in Orlando last season. Both sides of the ball will have to grow up in a hurry. The Knights avoid Houston, which is good, but do draw Navy and Memphis, which is bad.
Win Total Pick: Under 7.5
As you can see from my numbers, I don’t have the highest hopes for UCF. They were outgained on average last season and also got outgained in five of their six wins. With a lot of production leaving from the defense, that will put a lot of pressure on an offense that is still in its infant stages in terms of development. Last season felt more opportunistic than anything else. There’s talent here, but getting to eight wins with a tough non-conference schedule and a rebuilt defense seems like a pretty big stretch.