A 40-32 loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl kept UCF from another perfect season, but the Knights have not lost a regular-season game since the 2016 finale against rival South Florida, a streak of 22 straight. UCF has been the unquestioned class of the American Athletic Conference as it opens its second season under head coach Josh Heupel on Thursday night.
The Knights open the year No. 17 in the AP Poll. After going 27-1 over the last two seasons, UCF will look for another victory against Florida A&M. Out of the MEAC in the FCS ranks, the Rattlers went 6-5 in their first season under Willie Simmons. The Rattlers were picked to finish third in the MEAC -- a conference they have not won since 2010.
Florida A&M has played an FBS team in each of the last 10 seasons, but the closest such game for the Rattlers was a 48-16 loss to Miami in 2009. UCF's last loss to an FCS program was a 16-15 defeat against Furman during an 0-12 campaign in 2015. The contest will be just the second meeting between the schools. Florida A&M won the first matchup at home in 1987, 19-14.
Florida A&M at UCF
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: UCF -47.5
When Florida A&M Has the Ball
Trying to upset UCF is a tall task, but Florida A&M does have one of the best corps of offensive skill players in the MEAC. Quarterback Ryan Stanley returns after posting more than 2,500 passing yards and 17 touchdowns a season ago. Joining Stanley is the backfield are running backs Deshawn Smith and Bishop Bonnett, who combined for nearly 1,200 rushing yards while averaging about seven yards per carry. Receiver Chad Hunter returns after catching a team-high six touchdowns last season.
The Rattlers hoped to beef us their offensive line this offseason with the addition of former five-star prospect Calvin Ashley. Ashley spent time at Auburn and Florida Atlantic before becoming the first former five-star prospect ever to sign with Florida A&M. UCF wasn't a great pass-rushing team last season, but where the Knights excelled was taking the ball away.
With 28 turnovers forced, the Knights ranked second in the AAC in that category and sixth in the nation. Leading tackler Richie Grant returns for UCF after tallying 109 total stops, six interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2018. Linebacker Nate Evans also is a very good player to watch for the Knights.
UCF will have to deal with some attrition with defensive end Titus Davis and defensive backs Kyle Gibson and Rashard Causey being among the most notable. The Knights did struggle defensively late last season, allowing at least 40 points three times in their final six games, including in each of their last two.
When UCF Has the Ball
Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush will make his UCF debut on Thursday night. Wimbush, a former starting quarterback for the Fighting Irish, gave way to Ian Book early last season, but the Florida native still played well in relief. Wimbush will try to fill the void left by McKenzie Milton, who suffered a gruesome leg injury in last season's victory over South Florida. Darriel Mack Jr. played well in place of Milton last season, but fractured his ankle earlier this summer.
Wimbush will have no shortage of talent around him at the skill positions. Leading rusher Greg McCrae returns after rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns at almost nine yards per carry. Spelling him will be running back Adrian Killins, a speedy playmaker who totaled nearly 1,100 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns last season. Leading receiver Gabriel Davis is back after finishing with 815 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.
Seniors Jordan Johnson and Jake Brown headline a UCF offensive line that allowed just 19 sacks in 14 games and opened holes to the tune of 5.8 yards per rushing attempt last season. The Rattlers lose leading sack man Antonio Miller, but return top tackler Elijah Richardson. Florida A&M may be strongest in the secondary with Terry Jefferson, Herman Jackson and Andrew Hines. Punter Chris Fadool also is a weapon after averaging an FCS-leading 46.8 yards per punt last season.
Playing at UCF will be a valuable learning experience for Florida A&M, but nothing more. The Rattlers were handled 59-7 by Troy last season in their only contest against FBS competition and the Trojans don't possess talent close to that of UCF. The opener should give Wimbush ample opportunity to settle into his new offense and the Knights a chance to work out any necessary kinks before taking on Florida Atlantic, Stanford and Pittsburgh to wrap up non-conference play.
Prediction: UCF 63, Florida A&M 6
(Top photo courtesy of @UCF_Football)