UCF had a dream season in 2017 but the Knights will look quite different this fall. Not only is Josh Heupel taking over as head coach, but five starters on each side of the ball must be replaced. UCF isn't starting completely over, however, and the offense once again should put up plenty of points behind one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks. The defense is less of a sure thing. However, Heupel inherits a roster full of talent that should remain the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference and could find itself back in a New Year's Six bowl.
Previewing UCF Football's Offense for 2018
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UCF will be expected to continue putting up big numbers even though there is a coaching - and slight system - change, as Josh Heupel takes over for Scott Frost. The concepts are similar, although Heupel may attempt to execute his offense at an even faster pace than Frost did.
The key cog that makes everything go is McKenzie Milton, who emerged last season as one of the nation's top quarterbacks while leading the Knights to a 13-0 record. Already known for his athleticism, Milton proved to be a big-time passer, finishing among the NCAA leaders in all key passing categories, including second to Baker Mayfield in passing efficiency.
Milton has plenty of weapons, notably running backs Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson and a deep wide receiver corps. He will have to adapt without last year's No. 1 receiver Tre'Quan Smith and tight end Jordan Akins, both of whom left early for the NFL Draft.
Dredrick Snelson, the second receiver option a season ago, appears ready to step up as the main guy, and UCF returns a pair of promising sophomores in Gabe Davis and Marlon Williams. Ole Miss transfer Tre Nixon was awarded immediate eligibility in May and will factor into the mix at receiver. Tight end will be up for grabs, though it seems Wisconsin transfer Jake Hescock could have a leg up on the competition.
UCF does have some starters to replace on the offensive line, but there are several worthy contenders in the mix to fill those spots. Trevor Elbert, a junior college transfer who began his career at Texas A&M, is likely to find a spot in the lineup.
Previewing UCF Football's Defense for 2018
There are more questions on the defensive side with UCF tasked with replacing several impact players - most notably linebacker and team leader Shaquem Griffin and cornerback Mike Hughes, an early NFL Draft entry. Plus, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon is implementing a 4-3 front, adding to the learning curve - particularly for some former outside linebackers who are now defensive ends.
As a position group, the defensive line might have taken the biggest hit with the graduation losses of Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad. The good news is that Trysten Hill returns to anchor the middle, and there are some promising players - Dedrion Bacote-Sweat and Randy Charlton among them - to provide speed coming off the edge at defensive end.
Griffin grabbed most of the attention at linebacker with his seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss, but Pat Jasinski quietly led the team in tackles (104).
Though the secondary loses Hughes, everybody else returns, including senior safeties Tre Neal and Kyle Gibson plus Nevelle Clarke, who many believe will be UCF's next elite corner.
Previewing UCF Football's Specialists for 2018
The placekicking and punting spots are solid with a pair of seniors. Matthew Wright, who connected on 13-of-18 field goals in 2017, will enter his fourth season as starter. Mac Loudermilk didn't get the opportunity to punt all that often but was always reliable when he did. The biggest question is who will replace Hughes, who had three combined touchdowns last season as the primary kick and punt returner.
Heupel inherits an enviable situation but also some of the biggest expectations coming off last year's perfect season and self-proclaimed "National Championship." That said, with all the returning talent, particularly on the offensive side, UCF should be the odds-on favorite to repeat as conference champions with a good shot at returning to a New Year's Six bowl for the third time in six years.
National Ranking: 31
AAC East Prediction: 1
(Top photo courtesy of UCF)