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College Football Preview 2019: 13. UCF Knights

13. UCF Knights

A third straight undefeated regular season? If the defense improves, its entirely plausible

Darriel Mack
Offense: UCF has had one of the most explosive offenses in college football the past two seasons, averaging 43.2 PPG in 2018 despite breaking in a new head coach in Josh Huepel. This year's group still has plenty of playmakers, but injuries at the most important position put them in an interesting spot into 2019.

Back-to-back AAC Player of the Year and former Heisman Trophy finalist McKenzie Milton is one of the best in college football but his future is incredibly murky at this point. He suffered a scary leg injury late in 2018 and has had multiple surgeries over the off-season. It is highly unlikely he'll see the field at all in '19, but the hope is that 2020 will see his return. Then, his replacement, Darriel Mack suffered a broken ankle this past week. That means the Knights will lean on former Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush, who lost his starting job in South Bend but is still a real talent. Wimbush is an established runner that could open up this offense in that way, but he still has to show he can make the big throws this UCF offense will need.

The good news for this offense is that the running back position should help take pressure off of Wimbush. Senior Adrian Killins returns as their feature guy, coming off two straight All-AAC seasons. He is particularly dangerous as a pass-catcher and return man, recording 377 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver. The Knights also bring back junior Greg McCrae, who actually led the team in rushing, with 1,182 yards and 10 scores. The two of them are both very quick and versatile, which gives Huepel plenty of ways to hurt opposing defenses.

Just as promising for this offense is a stacked receiver corps that also has loads of playmaking ability. Junior Otis Anderson is another Swiss-Army knife player that can hurt you in so many ways. He has played running back in the past, but often lines up as the team's slot receiver. Anderson had 505 all-purpose yards in 2018, along with seven touchdowns. Fellow juniors Tre Nixon & Gabriel Davis are your more traditional pass-catchers. Davis is a big-bodied receiver that was an All-Conference player last season who recorded 815 receiving yards. A pair of transfers will lock down the tight end spot, with former Notre Dame TE Jonathon MacCollister the likely starter. Former Wisconsin Badger Jake Hescock is not much of a receiver, but he'll be very useful as a blocker.

An experienced offensive line should pay huge dividends for this offense. Three starters are returning, and four of the five have significant game experience. Senior Jake Brown is a key returnee as a veteran presence at a crucial position. Up the middle, senior center Jordan Johnson is also back in Orlando and should open things up between the tackles.

Even with injuries to Milton & Mack, UCF's offense is still in a good spot pushing into 2019. While Wimbush still has to grow as a passer, he has played in a number of big games and he has loads of talent to support him. Killins, Anderson, Davis and Nixon are all interesting pieces that should ensure scoreboard operators are busy once again in Central Florida.

Defense: While the Knights feature one of the best offenses in the entire land, the same cannot be said for the other side of the ball. A notable strength for the team during their undefeated 2017 campaign, this unit really struggled to stop the run and contain big plays. UCF allowed 222.3 yards per game a season ago, the 118th rated rush defense in FBS football.

The Knights are going to need the defensive line to step up, although this is a group with notable question marks. Senior end Brendon Hayes is the top returning leader in sacks, recording three of them in '18. He has the chance to get even better, although offensive lines look like they'll be able to key in on him and double team him. Sophomore Randy Charlton has the potential to be a breakout candidate at the other end spot, but there isn't much proven pieces in the heart of the line. Former Virginia Tech signee Cam Goode is another guy with significant upside but will need to learn very quick.

Senior linebacker Nate Evans emerged as a leader for this defense a year ago and he looks like an All-AAC guy once again. Evans cleaned up a lot of the holes that emerged because of the questionable defensive line, with 99 tackles in 2018. The vet also proved he could get into opposing backfields and cause chaos, with 10 tackles for loss. Sophomore Eriq Gilyard came in when longtime starter Pat Jasinski went down with a leg injury and made some important plays, compiling eight tackles in the Memphis game. Now a projected starter, he's yet another guy that has potential, but won't get much down time to figure things out.

UCF's secondary wasn't bad a season ago, but it was prone to letting up the big play. This is a very solid position group that sees three starters return, including both starting cornerbacks. Junior Brandon Moore and senior Nevelle Clarke are proven players in this league, with 38 total starts between them. Junior Richie Grant is returning at safety, coming off an impressive campaign where he had 109 tackles and six interceptions. That trio comprises one of the best units in the AAC and teams won't be able to get anything easy through the air in 2019.

Former Miami head coach Randy Shannon has proven he can lead elite defenses during his time with the Hurricanes and at Florida. It will be fascinating to see if he can turn this group around, which lacked a true leader without the Griffin brothers. There is a good amount of experience here, so the arrow seems to be pointing up.

Special Teams: It looks as though UCF will be breaking in a new placekicker and punter, which will ensure some interesting competitions into fall camp and the regular season. A number of freshmen are competing for the snaps, with Daniel Obarski seeming to close the spring as a favorite at kicker. The return game is a strength, with the always-dangerous Killins & Anderson set to cause real damage.

Bottom Line: The impressive transition from Frost to Huepel proved that this UCF program is not slowing down anytime soon, and an exciting 2019 seems to be on the horizon. With so much exciting pieces to work with, Huepel will have the offense humming once again, but the defense could really make or break this season. Despite the struggles it endured throughout a big chunk of 2018, the Knights still managed to win 12 games and the AAC. With the league seeming to be getting better every year, that won't happen again. Instead, the Knights will need the defensive line to improve and the secondary to live up to its talent and experience level. The non-conference schedule could be a little bit concerning for this team, as Stanford and Pittsburgh are two quality teams that seem to match up pretty well against UCF (Pittsburgh is also on the road). Yet, the rest of the AAC still seems to be looking up at the Knights, who should play their way into another New Year's Six Bowl this fall.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (7-1 AAC, Win AAC Championship)
Offensive MVP: QB Brandon Wimbush
Defensive MVP: S Richie Grant
Breakout Player of the Year: DE Randy Charlton
Impact Freshman: DE Jalen Pinkney (JUCO)

Five-Year Trend
2014: 9-4 (7-1 AAC)
2015: 0-12 (0-8 AAC)
2016: 6-7 (4-4 AAC)
2017: 13-0 (8-0 AAC)
2018: 12-1 (8-0 AAC)

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