As we near the end of July, we find ourselves just over a month away from kickoff of the college football season. With that in mind, we continue the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview with No. 42, the Central Florida Golden Knights.
UCF struggled to find consistency last season and ended up losing five of their last seven games to finish just 5-7 (3-5) and just missed out on a chance to play in the postseason. They sported the ninth best scoring defense in the country in 2011, allowing just 18.3 points per game, keeping opponents to 14 points or less in five of their games, including a pair of shutouts. Not so coincidentally, those were also the five games that the Knights won. In their other seven games, the defense wasn’t quite enough to carry them and actually let them down down the stretch, ranking 103rd in 4th quarter defense. Then quarterback Jeff Godfrey fell to injury and his replacement, Blake Bortles, turned out to be better, causing a rift in team chemistry and the whole team fell apart. Can George O’Leary, who has made a habit of up-and-down seasons while in Orlando, bounce back and lead the Knights to the top of Conference USA once again?
The Knights will have plenty of questions to answer on the offensive side of the ball, starting with the drama of the coup at quarterback. Godfrey lost the job, and the team, last season when he got hurt as Bortles showed a better skill set for the position. That led Godfrey to announce a transfer, complete with Godfrey’s father accusing O’Leary of being a racist. Now, O’Leary has announced Godfrey will return to the team as a wide receiver. Can’t see anything that could possibly go wrong with that.
With the combined talents of the duo of running backs Brynn Harvey and Latavius Murray, now seniors who combined for 1,123 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, the Knights did quite well when they were able to manage down and distance using the running game. That running depth will be bolstered by transfer Storm Johnson, a former Miami Hurricane who abruptly left that program after winning the starting job. The combination of Harvey-Murray-Johnson could combine to be the best trio of running backs in the country.
The trouble for UCF last season came when they were forced into passing situations. The combination of Godfrey’s questionable passing ability and the inexperience of their receiving corps made for any 3rd and long situation a near impossible hurdle to overcome. That shouldn’t be the case this season as they add the athletic Godfrey to a group that gained a wealth of experience last year. J.J. Worton and Josh Reese are now sophomores after combining for 71 catches and 992 yards a year ago, and will look to grow in a more traditional pro-style offensive attack with Bortles under center.
The defense started out last season on a strong run, allowing just 50 points over the first five games. Then things went awry and they collapsed down the stretch, a fate they’ll hope to avoid by returning most of their defensive depth from last season. Three of their top four ends, three of their top tackles, the top three outside linebackers, and the top three safeties from last year’s squad all come back in 2012. That continuity will hopefully help them stay strong for an entire season and avoid the collapse that doomed them in 2011.
The return of A.J. Bouye from a knee injury that cost him most of 2011 will bolster the secondary. He’ll lead a group along with sophomores Terrance Plummer and Willie Mitchell who will try and improve on a defense that keyed the Knights collapse after allowing 70 percent completion percentage against and a combined 685 yards in back-to-back games against SMU and UAB. From there, the rest of the defense collapsed and the season went down the drain.
The key for this season’s defense will come on the defensive line as they try and find a run-stuffing defensive tackle to pair with their speedy, but undersized tackle Victor Gray (6-foot-4, 267 pounds) on the inside. They have a pair of 300+ options in E.J. Dunston and Josh Wofford who will likely fill the role, but neither was impressive last season. Unfortunately for UCF, they may be all they have to choose from.
The Knights’ hopes at a bounce-back 2012 could be hurt by a very rough schedule. They have an early trip to Ohio State on September 8 and a home contest against Missouri September 29 that will rigorously test this team of unknown commodities. They will also finish the season with four of their last six games on the road against conference opponents, including a trip to Conference USA favorite Tulsa November 17. However, with their other three road games being extremely winnable games (Memphis, Marshall, UTEP), this team could be in line for eight wins which would put them in the conversation for a conference title. If the Knights can bounce back in true O’Leary fashion, then they’ll leave for the Big East next season on the highest note possible.