UCF ranks in the top-25 for the first time since 2013, and look to be legitimate threats in the American Athletic Conference.
The media always focus on those teams that are always in the top-25, but the little guys need love too. We at SQ have started a series called Underdog U where we take a closer look at a non-Power Five that has played well enough to garner national attention. This week, the focus shifts to UCF, where the Knights have jumped out to a 4-0 start and are making waves in a wide-open American Athletic Conference.
Why You Don’t Know Them
UCF’s first taste of national attention was during the 2014 Fiesta Bowl when they took on Big 12 champ Baylor. Lead by current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, the Knights pulled off the biggest underdog win in BCS history with a 52-42 win. Despite the big win, UCF hasn’t found continued success.
Just two years later, looked nothing like the team that beat Baylor. Returning only 11 starters on both sides of the ball, the Knights could resemble anything remotely close to a competitive team. Dragged down by the country’s worst offense and one of the worst defenses, UCF started 0-8, lost longtime coach George O’Leary and finished the season without a single victory.
Enter former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost. In his first season as the Knight’s head coach, Frost quickly turned a winless team into one that could compete for a bowl game. A 6-7 season has never felt as good as it did in Orlando. The Knights finished seventh in the American Athletic Conference, but qualified for the AutoNation Cure Bowl. UCF may have lost to Arkansas State but fans saw a glimpse of just how good this team can be.
Why You Should Know Them
With Frost calling the shots, it’s not surprising to see UCF take on an Oregon-esque identity. The offense is what moves this team and makes them so lethal. The Knights rank among the best in the country in yards per game (533, eighth in the country) and point per game (47.5, first in the country). UCF has benefited from a balanced offense that is more than capable of beating teams in the air or on the ground.
UCF Football (@UCF_Football) October 8, 2017
Dual-threat sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton has impressed the Knight faithful after a bumpy freshman season where he picked up only 2,141 total yards, 13 total touchdowns, and threw seven interceptions. In 2017, through four games Milton has matched almost all of last season’s numbers with far greater efficiency. He currently has picked up 1,357 yards, 13 total touchdowns (all through the air), and only two interceptions. His head coach has certainly seen the strides Milton is making along with the rest of the Knights.
I tell you what, that kid’s playing lights out, He deserves some credit for a lot that’s going on. We’re a lot better all around him, too. He’s got a lot of good weapons, some new ones coming up every week and his offensive line — one sack through four games is pretty special. A lot of guys are playing well, but McKenzie is playing some darn good football right now.
Accompanying Milton’s success is a backfield and receiving core that, while maybe not considered the best, are sure fun to watch. No Knight’s running back ranks in the top-180 in terms of yardage, but the running back by committee that Frost has employed does have UCF ranked 25th in rushing yards per game at 222.3. Sophomore Adrian Killin leads the team in yards with 239 and is UCF’s speed back, while junior Taj McGowen is their power back with 128 yards but five touchdowns. Milton is also a threat to run, and while he hasn’t found the end zone yet, is second on the team with 192 yards.
The receiving corps may not be as deep as some of the bigger schools, but their top guys make a threatening pair. Junior Tre’Quan Smith has been UCF’s go-to guy the moment he stepped on campus. As a freshman, he was named AAC Rookie of the Year and has totaled 1,914 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. Sophomore Dredrick Snelson was a coveted four-star recruit in the 2015 class and has been a solid partner next to Smith. Snelson has already topped last season’s receiving yards at 213 but has only found the end zone once this year.
UCF WR Tre’Quan Smith hauled in three deep receptions for three touchdowns and 142 yards vs Cinci.— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 8, 2017
He now leads the nation with 6 deep TDs. pic.twitter.com/ub6welHe7e
The Road Ahead
UCF has passed a couple early-season tests this season to show the country how much they’ve improved. Last season Maryland beat UCF in double overtime, but this time the Knights got the last laugh with a 38-10 thrashing. Memphis was still riding the momentum of a win against UCLA, but UCF took care of them too in a convincing 40-13 victory that pushed the Knights into the top-25.
The remaining schedule is not an easy one. Despite games against Austin Peay and UConn, the Knights must play conference powerhouses Navy and USF. Navy is currently ranked 25th and with their famous rushing attack will be a formidable opponent, especially on the road. Currently ranked 18th, USF was the AAC preseason favorite and is looking stronger by the week. This rivalry game will be a fun one to watch and could very well determine the AAC East division.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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