Football season is right around the corner.
With that in mind, the Orlando Sentinel got together with beat writers from various media outlets around the country to get the scoop on all the Knights' opponents this season.
We will showcase a daily Q&A with a beat reporter(s) covering one of UCF's opponents this season.
Up today? SMU football analysis from Dave Campbell's Texas Football associate editor and Dallas Morning News SMU/recruiting blogger E.J. Holland
What expectations does the coaching staff have for the team this year?
I would think all coaching staffs have high expectations heading into a new year. But SMU should temper theirs. The Mustangs lost numerous key starters from last year's 5-7 team, which missed a bowl game for the first time since 2008 — June Jones' first year with the program. Jones, however, believes the team will be "more athletic" this year and seems pretty optimistic about 2014. After all, the AAC slate isn't exactly a meat grinder — the Ponies' non-conference schedule is a different story.
What did you learn about SMU after spring football?
SMU is still a work in progress. How Neal Burcham will perform at quarterback will answer a lot of questions. The sophomore stepped in late last season after Garrett Gilbert went down with an injury but was shaky at best. Burcham certainly has potential — he was the Elite 11co-MVP with Jameis Winston — and could become a solid signal-caller. In Jones' pass heavy Run N' Shoot offense, it is imperative for him to do so ASAP. If Burcham struggles, so will this team.
Who are the key players for this year's team?
As mentioned, Burcham is the key to SMU's offense functioning rather than sputtering like it did against Houston when June Jones was shut out for the first time in his head coaching career. The playmaker you need to keep an eye on though is wide receiver Darius Joseph, who recorded 103 receptions for 808 yards and five touchdowns a year ago. Joseph is a great possession receiver coming out of the slot and will be Burcham's best friend. On defense, it's all about Beau Barnes. The senior defensive end shined in his first year as a starter with 45 tackles and five sacks and might also see some time at outside linebacker.
What players are new to the team and expected to make an immediate impact?
Matt Davis could challenge Burcham for the starting job. The former Texas A&M and JUCO transfer has tremendous upside and was a consensus four-star recruit a few years ago. A dangerous dual-threat quarterback, Davis doesn't exactly fit Jones' scheme and only has a few months to learn the playbook, but the talent is there. Incoming freshman Daniel Gresham could start at running back from Day 1. Gresham was committed to Texas before pledging to Louisville and eventually ending up with the Mustangs late in the recruiting process. Scout.com ranked Gresham as the No. 1 fullback in the 2014 class.
What are SMU’s strengths on offense? Defense?
The offense has a lot of holes to fill. There really isn't a strength on that side of the ball. There will be new starters at quarterback running back, wide receiver and along the offensive line. The strength of the defense, however, is the defensive line. Considered a big weakness heading into 2013, this line improved tremendously during AAC play and returns all three starters, headlined by the aforementioned Barnes.
What is SMU’s weaknesses on offense? Defense?
On offense, it's inexperience. As mentioned, SMU will have new starters everywhere. Running back is probably the biggest weakness though. SMU ranked 117th in the nation last year in rushing yards per game and doesn't have a cemented starter heading into fall camp. While running the ball isn't a big focus for SMU, having it become obsolete will only put more pressure on its young quarterback. And a shaky offensive line won't exactly help that cause. Defensively, SMU gave up over 33 points per game last season and a lot of blame was placed on the secondary. The Mustangs do have some potential in the defensive backfield with young, raw players, but the group must make big strides in 2014. Finding an inside linebacker to step up for lost leader Randall Joyner will be important as well.
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UCF vs. SMU
Location: Orlando, FL
Last meeting: 12/7/2013, UCF beat SMU 17-13 in Dallas