The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 52: UCF
Coach: George O’Leary (50-51, entering ninth season; 102-84 overall entering 17th season)
2011 record: 5-7 (3-5 in Conference USA , fifth place in C-USA Eastern Division)
Look back: The Knights had high expectations entering the 2011 season. UCF was coming off the best year in school history, winning the 2010 Conference USA title and Liberty Bowl. The Knights key players from the championship season, including starting quarterback Jeff Godfrey and Liberty Bowl MVP Latavius Murray. However, the Knights lost key senior leadership and defensive playmakers from the 2010 squad. Their departure would prove to be a bigger headache than most anticipated during the 2011 preseason.
UCF opened the 2011 season on a high note, rolling to a 62-0 win over Charleston Southern and earned a 30-3 win over Boston College. While it was a down year for the Eagles, UCF fans still savored the Knights’ first home victory over a team from an automatic qualifying Bowl Championship Series league.
The Knights’ fortunes changed when they suffered a startling 17-10 loss at FIU. The Panthers’ hard charging and athletic defensive lineup pinned undersized Godfrey in the pocket, forcing the athlete who preferred to roll out and throw on the run to try to connect on passes seconds before his pocket collapsed. Godfrey, a Miami native, grew frustrated with his difficulty adapting to different defensive pressure. The loss clearly was a blow to his confidence and was a harbinger of a tough year ahead.
UCF held a lead at BYU the following week, but the Knights’ special teams unit struggled to take care of the football for the second consecutive game. For the second straight week, UCF special teams turnovers helped power the opposing team to a win. BYU rallied for a 24-17 win over UCF.
The Knights regrouped against rival Marshall, earning a 16-6 home win. However, UCF looked completely overwhelmed during losses at SMU and at UAB. The loss to the Blazers was especially startling and frustrating for the Knights because UAB entered the contest with an 0-6 record. Blazers’ reserve dual threat quarterback Jonathan Perry was the surprise starter against the Knights and was able to exploit the UCF defense’s slow reaction to the rushing attack.
UCF earned a much-needed 41-0 win over Memphis, giving the Knights a 4-4 record. The Knights had to win two of their final four games to earn a bowl invitation, but they came up short.
UCF lost 24-17 against Tulsa. With Godfrey obviously struggling, UCF coach George O’Leary let reserve quarterback Blake Bortles take over running the offense in the fourth quarter of UCF’s big game at Southern Miss. Bortles led the Knights’ comeback, connecting on 25-yard touchdown pass to J.J. Worton as time expired to make the score 30-29. O’Leary opted to go for a two-point conversion, but Bortles’ pass to the end zone was batted away and the Knights lost.
UCF once again came up short in a must-win contest the following week, falling 38-31 at East Carolina. Bortles came off the bench again and led the Knights’ offense to a 31-31 tie in the fourth quarter. However, UCF’s defense couldn’t come up with much-needed stops. East Carolina’s Torrance Hunt sliced through the defense during a 56-yard touchdown run, clinching a 38-31 win over the Knights.
UCF closed out the year with a 31-14 win over UTEP. Bortles played the majority of the contest, making it clear he would eventually replace Godfrey in the starting lineup. Godfrey was upset by the changes and left the program for the spring semester, but he has since returned to the program and has switched to the wide receiver position.
The Knights experienced extreme highs and lows off the field. UCF earned a long awaited invitation to join the Big East in all sports in 2013. The program also faced heavy scrutiny as part of an NCAA investigation into recruiting practices. Athletic director Keith Tribble andwide receivers coach David Kelly were fired due to their ties to the investigation.
O’Leary opted to make major offseason coaching changes, revamping his defensive coaching staff and hiring Drew Hughes to spearhead a more unified and aggressive recruiting effort.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Defensive starters lost/returning: 3/8
Key losses: CB Josh Robinson, LB Josh Linam, TE Adam Nissley, OL Nick Pieschel, DL Darius Nall, P David Bohner, LS Charley Hughlett
Top returnees: RB Latavius Murray, S Kemal Ishmael, OL Theo Goins, OL Jordan Rae, OL Phil Smith, RB Storm Johnson, QB Blake Bortles, DL Victor Gray, LB Jonathan Davis, KR Rannell Hall.
Strengths: UCF returns a strong offensive lineup, with some transfers provided a much needed lift at key positions. Bortles has taken over the starting quarterback job and seems to be progressing well. The Knights also have a strong back up in Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert, brother of NFL quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Miami transfer Storm Johnson and Murray should form an explosive rushing attack. The Knights have strong receiver threats, including Quincy McDuffie, Josh Reese, Rannell Hall and impressive freshman Breshad Perriman. J.J. Worton should return to the program once he resolves his legal issues linked to a dispute outside a popular bar. Georgia Tech transfer Phil Smith will help bolster the Knights’ offensive line, joining returning players Theo Goins and Jordan Rae. On the defensive side of the ball, the Knights return strong leaders in safety Kemal Ishmael and defensive lineman Victor Gray.
Weaknesses: UCF needs its linebackers to improve significantly from last season, especially in run defense coverage. Jonathan Davis, Terrance Plummer, Ray Shipman and Troy Gray have all shown signs of improvement, but it’s unclear how much they will progress.
The Knights also need to get a lot stronger in the trenches. UCF’s defensive line struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and its offensive line didn’t provide steady enough protection for the quarterbacks.
Unforced errors were a huge headache for UCF last season. The Knights have to take better care of the football in order to win close games.
Outlook: UCF plays a tough nonconference schedule, including a big game at Ohio State. The Knights have the talent to compete for a Conference USA title and earn a bowl invitation. Phil Steele projects UCF to be his non-AQ BCS buster, but it’s tough to endorse such lofty expectations when the Knights underachieved last season.
Aug. 30 At Akron
Sept. 8 At Ohio State
Sept. 15 FIU
Sept. 29 Missouri
Oct. 4 East Carolina
Oct. 13 Southern Miss
Oct. 20 At Memphis
Oct. 27 At Marshall
Nov. 3 SMU
Nov. 10 At UTEP
Nov. 17 At Tulsa Nov. 24 UAB
Rest of the countdown: