If you had UCF pegged the last three years, nice work, Nostradamus. Under George O'Leary, the Knights have been maddeningly unpredictable, going winless (0-11) in 2004, then recovering with eight wins, winning the East Division in their first year in Conference USA and a school-first bowl game in 2005. 2006, Central Florida slumping to 4-8 last year as a preseason favorite to win Conference USA. After losing all three games to Marshall as a member of the Mid-American Conference, the now Knights have won two straight over the Herd as both moved to C-USA from the MAC in 2005.
Head coach: George O'Leary
4th year: 12-24
11th year overall: 64-57
Off. 15, Def. 23, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 19
Ten Best Players
1. RB Kevin Smith, Jr.
2. DE Leger Douzable, Sr.
3. CB Johnell Neal, Jr.
4. SS Sha'reff Rashad, Jr.
5. WR Rocky Ross, Jr.
6. OT Patrick Brown, Jr.
7. CB/PR Joe Burnett, Jr.
8. C Kyle Smith, Sr.
9. QB Kyle Israel, Sr.
10. DT Orrell Johnson, Soph.
Sept. 1 at NC State
Sept. 15 Texas
Sept. 22 Memphis
Sept. 29 UL Lafayette
Oct. 6 at East Carolina
Oct. 13 at South Florida
Oct. 20 Tulsa
Oct. 28 at Southern Miss
Nov. 3 Marshall
Nov. 10 at UAB
Nov. 17 at SMU
Nov. 24 UTEP
How the program responds to last season's flop depends on the development of the heavy-legged defense, which ranked among the nation's worst a year ago and might have been far worse had it not closed against four of the league's most inept offenses in November. O'Leary believes he addressed the speed issue with February's recruiting class, but most of those kids won't begin contributing until 2008. That puts the pressure on a reshuffled coaching staff, namely new coordinator John Skladany, to turn dust into gold this fall.
The good news in Orlando is that 16 players who started last November's finale will be back in 2007, although the pessimist will recall that about the same number returned to start last year's disappointing season. The better news is the construction of Bright House Networks Stadium, a state-of-the-art, 45,000-seat facility that'll replace the cavernous Citrus Bowl and be christened on national television when Texas visits Sept. 15. The on-campus stadium represents a great hook for future recruits and a far better college football feel for fans who used to travel downtown to see UCF games.
Recent history says it's a waste of time trying to predict where the Knights will wind up this season, but what fun would that be? In a watered-down Eastern Division that houses just one above-average team, don't be shocked if UCF defies the odds again and flirts with bowl eligibility. O'Leary is too good to let things slide for long.
What to watch for on offense: Three-year starting quarterback Steven Moffett is gone, but the offense will be fine if Kyle Israel, a seasoned veteran of 17 games, can manage the pro-set offense and build a bridge to 2008, when one of the young hurlers takes the torch. When he's healthy, Kevin Smith is one of the league's premier backs and should be utilized accordingly, especially with four starters back on the line. In one five-game stretch in 2006, he chugged for 683 yards, a testament to his potential. It would have been nice to have receiver Mike Walker back for one more year, but the toughness of Rocky Ross and quickness of Javid James will help compensate for the loss.
What to watch for on defense: Fixing the defense is priority No. 1 in Orlando. The staff recognizes that everyone is playing in space these days and that the secondary must become more athletic to meet the challenge. Although all four starting defensive backs return, no one's job will be guaranteed. Of course, a little more speed off the edge and pressure up the gut would help the pass defense in 2007. O'Leary made it a point to get plenty of reps for underclassmen late last year, which should pay dividends this fall. Tackle Torrell Johnson and end Jared Kirksey, in particular, should make quantum leaps in their development this year.
The team will be far better if: Last year, UCF had an Conference-USA-worst red-zone offense; to be better, that has to improve. UCF gained plenty of yards in 2006 but scored few points, settling too often for three when six was needed. While getting touchdowns is always the goal, points of any kind would be nice. If the Knights are to compensate for a rickety defense, Michael Torres needs to attempt fewer than the 24 field goals of last year.
The Schedule: There aren't too many breaks in the conference schedule, as UCF must play Southern Miss and East Carolina on the road, and drawing Tulsa, SMU and UTEP from the West isn't a plus. The non-conference schedule only has one layup, UL Lafayette, while the early dates with N.C. State and Texas won't likely make for a strong start. Can the Golden Knights get through October alive, with road games at East Carolina, South Florida and Southern Miss, plus a visit by Tulsa?
Best Offensive Player: Junior RB Kevin Smith. A shoulder injury cut his season short last year, but he's expected to be back by the fall to carry the offensive workload. When he's on he can be unstoppable, as he gained more than 159 yards three times last season. He has the size to be a workhorse, to go along with the speed to crank out big plays when he gets into the open.
Best Defensive Player: Junior CB Johnell Neal. While he's only 5-10 and 177 pounds, he proved to be plenty tough, making a team-leading 66 tackles. He's tough enough to handle himself at free safety if needed, but he's more useful at corner. While he's made 135 tackles and broke up 13 passes over the last two seasons, it would be nice if he could pick off more passes.
Key players to a successful season: Junior CBs Johnell Neal and Joe Burnett. The young stars of 2005 got burned way too often in 2006. With their experience and skill, they need to be the difference-makers in more wins. It would help if they didn't have to do so much in run support and could concentrate on trying to slow down the opposition's passing game.
The season will be a success if: UCF gets back to a bowl game for the second time in three years. The experience is there, the athleticism has improved and the coaching staff should be in place. Now the consistency has to arrive. With seven games against teams that didn't go to a bowl last year, and with the new stadium to give the team a real home-field advantage, going to a bowl game is a reasonable goal.
Key game: Oct. 6 at East Carolina. If the Golden Knights want to win their second division title in three years, they're going to have to win the East games on the road against UAB, Southern Miss and East Carolina. If they don't beat the Pirates in early October, the later date that month against Southern Miss likely won't matter.
2006 Fun Stats:
- Punt return average: UCF 14.3 yards per return; Opponents 7.6 yards per return
- Fumbles: UCF 19 (lost 9); Opponents 12 (lost 2)
- Red zone scores: UCF 36 of 50 (72 percent); Opponents 32 of 37 (86 percent)