The transition at head coach from Scott Frost to Josh Heupel was a seamless one for UCF, as the Knights capped the 2018 season with a 12-1 mark and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Heupel's second year features more question marks than his debut, but UCF is Athlon's pick to rank as the top Group of 5 team once again. With McKenzie Milton sidelined for 2019, there will be another quarterback at the helm of an offense loaded with skill talent. The defense had issues against the run last season and features significant concerns in the trenches going into the fall. However, the secondary is set with three returning starters, including All-America candidate Richie Grant. Provided Wimbush or Mack steps up and eases the transition under center, UCF should earn its third consecutive trip to a New Year's Six bowl.
Previewing UCF's Offense for 2019
A year earlier than expected, UCF was set to have a quarterback battle on its hands. The McKenzie Milton era will pause — at least for a year — while the back-to-back AAC Offensive Player of the Year continues to recover from a gruesome leg injury suffered late last season. Darriel Mack Jr. started the final two games of 2018 and showed promise with an MVP performance of 348 yards passing and six combined touchdowns in the conference championship game, but he was humbled a bit in the bowl game. To add experience to the competition, UCF brought in former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush as a graduate transfer. Wimbush adds maturity and a great deal of success — he was 13–3 as the starter with the Irish.
The two were ready to compete for the starting job in fall camp, but Mack broke his ankle in early July, seemingly giving Wimbush the No. 1 spot on the depth chart by default. Mack's injury is not considered to be season-ending and there are other candidates on the roster. But it seems like it will be Wimbush's job, at least to start the season. Whoever ends up with the starting nod each week will have a bevy of talent surrounding him.
The Knights are a solid three-deep at running back with Greg McCrae, Adrian Killins Jr. and Otis Anderson, each of whom brings a different skill set. A former walk-on, McCrae emerged out of the shadows to rush for 1,182 yards last season. Killins is among the fastest players in the nation, always a touchdown threat when he touches the ball. Anderson’s official listed position is “utility” as he’ll be used not only as a rusher but also as a slot receiver.
Wide receiver is also expected to be a strength thanks to the return of All-AAC selection Gabriel Davis, a big outside threat who has a knack for making tough catches.
The offensive line returns largely intact with considerable experience among four of the five starters.
Previewing UCF's Defense for 2019
UCF welcomes back the bulk of its secondary, including returning starters Richie Grant, Nevelle Clarke and Brandon Moore. Grant has matured into UCF’s best overall defender, tallying a team-leading 109 tackles and six interceptions a season ago. Clarke and Moore, with 38 starts between them, could comprise the AAC’s best cornerback duo.
Defensive line will be the big question mark, as Brendon Hayes is the only returnee with significant experience. The Knights will lean on continued growth from younger players such as Randy Charlton but are also prepared to play a host of newcomers, as there are several new additions. On the inside, former Virginia Tech signee Cam Goode could be one to watch, while Jalen Pinkney, by way of junior college, is expected to see immediate action at end.
At linebacker, Nate Evans emerged as a defensive star last season, overcoming initial backup status to blossom into an All-AAC first-team performer with 99 tackles and 10 TFLs.
Previewing UCF's Specialists for 2019
It’ll be a new-look unit with fresh faces at placekicker, punter and long snapper. Competition at kicker and punter will likely last until the beginning of the season, with a possibility that both roles could ultimately be handed to freshmen.
First-year coach Josh Heupel followed Scott Frost’s perfect season with another undefeated regular season, though this time UCF lost in the bowl game. The offense continued to put up huge numbers as the Knights again were among the nation’s leaders in scoring and total yards. Even with a new starter at quarterback and some questions defensively, UCF’s overall talent level will still allow it to compete for another AAC championship and New Year’s Six bowl.
National Ranking: 22
(Top photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)