No. 25 – UCF Knights Season Preview
It was an offseason of change for the UCF Knights. Firebrand athletic director Danny White was hired by Tennessee in mid-January, and White brought head coach Josh Heupel with him to Knoxville less than a week later. UCF was put behind the eight-ball, needing to bring in a new head coach so late in the process, but they seem to have landed on a perfect option in former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. The Knights may have beat Malzahn’s Tigers in the 2018 Peach Bowl to win a share of the national championship, but his offensive scheme fits perfectly with the mentality UCF established under Scott Frost and Heupel.
UCF Regular Season Win Total
Over 9.5 Wins -115
Under 9.5 Wins -115
Dillon Gabriel has followed in the footsteps of Blake Bortles and McKenzie Milton to become UCF’s next star quarterback. Gabriel cut down on the mistakes from his freshman season in 2020 to complete 60% of his passes for 32 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He isn’t extremely accurate and doesn’t run too well, but Gabriel makes the right decisions with the ball and doesn’t commit turnovers.
UCF will have some new players at the skill positions though. The Knights’ two leading rushers and leading receiver from 2020 are no longer in Orlando. Bentavious Thompson is the leading returning rusher (382 yards and 5.2 YPC), but Auburn transfer Mark-Anthony Richards, Virginia transfer RJ Harvey, and Northwestern transfer Isaiah Bowser will make sure UCF has plenty of options in the backfield.
There are only three players on this year’s roster that caught at least 10 passes for the Knights in 2020. Sophomore Jaylon Robinson is expected to be the No. 1 target and should see more balls than anyone else, but UCF scoured the transfer pool to fill out the receiving corps too. Brandon Johnson, Nate Craig-Myers, and Jordan Johnson all transferred into the program and are expected to play big roles.
The offensive line is arguably the best in the AAC and the strength of this offense. All five starters from last year are returning, and left guard Cole Schneider is a two-time All-AAC selection. Center Matt Lee was a First Team All-AAC pick in 2020, and right tackle Marcus Tatum has a ton of experience.
The Knights were active in bringing in players from Power Five programs on defense too. Defensive end Big Kat Bryant and cornerback Marco Domo came with Malzahn from Auburn and are expected to start, and defensive back Divaad Wilson is projected to see a lot of action after coming here from Georgia.
This defensive line should be the strength of the defense. However, there are question marks surrounding every level of UCF’s defense in 2021. Ricky Barber was a Second Team All-Conference USA selection at Western Kentucky in 2020, but this will be the first year at UCF for Barber and Bryant. Kalia Davis opted out of the 2020 season so he might take a step back, and there isn’t a lot of depth.
The biggest questions surround the secondary though. Richie Grant, Aaron Robinson, and Tay Gowan were all selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, and it won’t be easy to replace that talented trio. Strong safety Derek Gainous and cornerback Davonte Brown are now expected to be the leaders of this unit.
If UCF runs the table in 2021, there is no doubt this team will earn the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six. The Knights will welcome MWC powerhouse Boise State to the Bounce House in their first game, and they will have to go on the road to face Louisville in mid-September and conference favorites Cincinnati in mid-October. They will be favorites in their other nine games barring injury or something unforeseen, so those three games will likely decide their season.
This offense will continue to put up gaudy numbers under Malzahn. UCF stands a good chance of winning at least 10 games, but the Knights won’t be able to go undefeated as the Bearcats’ stellar defense will likely be too much.