LAST YEAR: 8-5 (7-1 Conference USA Eastern Division) with a loss to Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game and a loss to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl.
EXPERIENCE: The Golden Knights return 18 starters and 42 lettermen.
TEAM STRENGTHS: With 18 starters returning, there is not only plenty of experience on both sides of the ball but this is a team that has learned how to win as evidenced by a stretch of eight wins in nine games in 2005. O'Leary wants to establish the running game first and he has five starters returning on an offensive line led by senior center Cedric Gagne-Marcoux to open holes for sophomore Kevin Smith. Smith is potentially the best running back in school history, combining power to go between the tackle and speed to take it outside. He ran for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman last year and it was his emergence that got the Knights untracked offensively. With a legitimate running game for the first time in his career, quarterback Steven Moffett put together an outstanding season with 2,925 passing yards and 22 touchdowns. Wide receiver Mike Walker caught 64 passes for 855 yards and nine touchdowns, so he is an established threat with good enough speed to get deep.
The goal for the Knights is a 60-40 run-to-pass balance. In a perfect world, O'Leary wants his teams to pound the ball between the tackles in the fourth quarter. UCF turned the ball over only 11 times last season (nine interceptions, 2 fumbles).
The Golden Knights have four studs in the secondary led by corner Joe Burnett and safety Jason Venson. Burnett picked off five passes as a true freshman last year and he was one of the nation's top punt returners, averaging 16.5 yards per return including two he took to the house. Venson was UCF's leading tackler. Another defensive standout is linebacker Ronell Sandy, a very fast 230-pounder who is always around the football.
TEAM WEAKNESSES: The bad new is that the defensive line has to be rebuilt. That could also be good news since the Golden Knights gave up 178 yards per game rushing last year. There are some big guys with speed but they are going to have to step it up quickly for UCF to avoid being dominated in the trenches.
Of nearly equal concern is the kicking game. O'Leary has to find replacements for punter Aaron Horne and placekicker Matt Prater who have graduated. Horne averaged 42.2 yards per punt and landed 20 of his kicks inside the 20. Prater was 17-26 on field goal attempts and more than half his kickoffs sailed into the end zone for touchbacks. The Golden Knights were able to win the field position game on a consistent basis last year because the kicking game and kick coverage was so solid.
On the offensive side, sophomore Rocky Ross will have to prove that he can be a primary target after turning in a fine freshman season as the number three option among the wide receivers. A replacement also has to be found for tight end Darcy Johnson. Maybe the greatest question on offense will be can anyone replace the playmaking abilities of Brandon Marshall (74 catches, 1195 yards, 11 touchdowns)?
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS IN 2006: The most critical issue is to find a playmaker at wide receiver that can command and beat the double and triple teams like Brandon Marshall did last year. Walker is a fine receiver but can he make life easier for the other receivers and can he stretch the defense? He has to step it up for the offense to work at peak efficiency.
Secondly, the Golden Knights have to maintain that 60-40 run-to-pass balance. One of the keys to last year's success was keeping the defense off the field, particularly since UCF gave up so much on the ground last year.
The third key is the special teams. Burnett provides the Golden Knights with one of the nation's most exciting punt returners. He is a weapon in the kicking and field position game. If UCF can get anything close to last year's production in the punting game and from its field goal kicker, the Golden Knights could make another run at a Conference USA title.
THE SCHEDULE: Florida of the SEC and Conference USA opponents Marshall and Memphis are the only two games against formidable opponents that the Golden Knights will have to play outside of Orlando. Big East opponents South Florida and Pitt will face UCF in the Citrus Bowl along with conference toughies UAB and Southern Miss.
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: The Golden Knights made year two of the George O'Leary era at UCF one to remember by getting to the Conference USA championship game and the school's first bowl game in history. There is reason to be optimistic this year with a favorable schedule and plenty of experienced starters including the offensive trigger man in Moffett. Moffett matured last year, throwing only nine picks in 375 passing attempts. His ability to make good decisions and protect the football along with Smith's presence in the running game gives the offense the look of explosiveness. UCF is solid in the secondary and at linebacker so if O'Leary can get improved production from his defensive line, expect UCF to be much improved. An 8-4 regular season sounds about right and with some breaks, the Golden Knights could go 9-3 and get another shot at winning the Conference USA title.
NEXT UP: Tennessee, Florida's September 16 opponent.