After running the table a year ago and staking a claim to a national championship whether you like it or not, UCF heads into 2018 as the easy pick to once again be the top non-power conference program reserving a seat at the New Year's Six table. But with a new head coach stepping into his first head coaching job (Josh Heupel) and a need to replace some bodies on the line of scrimmage, along with a potentially more challenging schedule, will UCF be able to waltz their way back to a big bowl game?
Barring any unforeseen weather challenges, UCF will face two ACC teams in September. UCF also plays the top challenger to its American Athletic Conference throne on the road in a cross-division matchup that could dictate who gets home-field advantage in the AAC Championship Game. UCF also ends the regular season on the road against their bitter in-state rivals.
Here’s a look at UCF’s opponents for the 2018 college football season, starting with the games that should be easier on the Knights and working our way up to the biggest challenges to face this fall.
12. Sept. 8 vs. South Carolina State
UCF’s home opener in Week 2 comes against an FCS opponent. The Knights should light up the scoreboard in this one.
11. Oct. 20 at East Carolina
UCF and East Carolina are on complete opposite ends of the AAC spectrum right now, which does not bode well for the Pirates in this one.
10. Aug. 30 at UConn
The season begins on the road at UConn on a Thursday night. The Huskies only return two defensive starters, which is not ideal going up against the UCF offense. Maybe the Huskies play well in the first half and give UCF something to think about, but the Knights should prevail without much of a problem in the season opener.
9. Nov. 17 vs. Cincinnati
It could be another disappointing season for Cincinnati with a lack of offensive firepower to keep up with a team like UCF. UCF won last year’s meeting, 51-23.
8. Oct. 6 vs. SMU
SMU returns a good amount of starters this season after going 7-6 last year, but a new coach in Sonny Dykes will have to find a way to improve the defense if the Mustangs are going to give UCF a good run. This one could be high-scoring though.
7. Nov. 1 vs. Temple
The Owls showed improvement through the 2017 season, but Temple may need to play a perfect game to challenge UCF head-to-head on the road. Both teams get a week off to prepare for the Thursday night game.
6. Sept. 15 at North Carolina
The Knights head to Chapel Hill for the first of two non-conference tilts against the ACC. First up is a UNC team with plenty of room for improvement, but the Tar Heels should be a step up in difficulty compared to most of the opponents UCF will face this season.
5. Sept. 29 vs. Pittsburgh
Two weeks after playing UNC, Pittsburgh comes to Orlando as UCF gets a rare home game against a Power 5 opponent. The Panthers may float around .500 this season but Pitt has a knack for scoring some notable upsets the last few years; Pitt has beaten Penn State, Clemson, and Miami in the past two years. Pitt will likely look to slow the tempo of the game down to a grind to prevent UCF’s offense from getting in a rhythm, and playing for a low-scoring affair could end up playing in Pitt’s favor.
4. Sept. 21 vs. FAU
Circle this one as one of the potentially most intriguing games of the year in all of college football. Lane Kiffin brings the defending Conference USA champions to Orlando to face UCF in what could be a wildly entertaining and feisty matchup of Group of 5 powers. FAU returns a defense loaded with returning starters, and Kiffin’s offense at FAU was difficult to slow down once it got rolling.
3. Nov. 10 vs. Navy
The golden rule when it comes to playing Navy is to prepare for the triple option. Navy’s style of play is quite different from the style UCF will play, so look for the Midshipmen to try controlling the clock with the running game. UCF will be able to rely on some big plays to stay on top though and should be able to get by the Midshipmen at home.
2. Nov. 23 at South Florida
USF may be more about their defense and running game this season as head coach Charlie Strong gets a chance to further implement his style of play with the Bulls. USF will have some new faces in key positions, like quarterback, but could still manage to stand in UCF’s way of a conference championship game at the end of the year when UCF visits Tampa for the regular season finale.
1. Oct. 13 at Memphis
UCF and Memphis are the top two teams in the AAC, so when they play head-to-head in Memphis in mid-October we could be getting an explosive preview of the conference championship game. Last year’s regular season meeting was a lopsided one in favor of UCF, but Memphis fired up the offense against the Knights in the AAC title game last season (UCF won 62-55).
-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.
(McKenzie Milton photo courtesy of UCF)