After losing just one game from 2017-18, UCF dropped three to bring its overall mark to 10-3 last season. However, the uptick in losses is nothing to be concerned about for coach Josh Heupel’s program. After all, the three defeats came by three points or less. With 16 starters back, the Knights are poised to challenge for the AAC title and ranking as the top Group of 5 team in 2020. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel anchors an explosive offense after a dynamic freshman campaign, and eight starters return off a defense that quietly held teams to 23 points a contest last year.
Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2020
Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2020
As the Knights faced quarterback uncertainty following McKenzie Milton’s serious leg injury at the end of 2018, it was freshman Dillon Gabriel who answered the call. The Hawaii native had one of the best seasons nationally for a freshman, passing for 3,653 yards, 29 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. For an offense that finished second nationally in total offense (540.5 yards) and fifth in scoring (43.4), Gabriel headlines an experienced group that should be able to keep things rolling in 2020.
Running back is a three-deep unit featuring Otis Anderson, Greg McCrae and Bentavious Thompson, all of whom possess significant experience. Anderson, who led the Knights with 726 rushing yards last season, will also see action at slot receiver.
The biggest question is who will step up as the go-to wide receiver in the wake of Gabriel Davis’ decision to leave early for the NFL. The most likely candidate is Tre Nixon, who was second to Davis in receiving yards (830) and touchdowns (seven). Big seasons are also expected from Marlon Williams (second on the team in receptions in 2019) and Jacob Harris, a big 6'5" target. Jaylon Robinson, eligible after transferring from Oklahoma, has wowed with his speed and athleticism.
The offensive line brings back three of five starters, led by experienced guards Cole Schneider and Samuel Jackson. Marcus Tatum, a graduate transfer from Tennessee, likely will fill a tackle spot.
Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2020
UCF’s secondary is poised to be its strongest unit with four of five starters returning. That group includes nickel back Aaron Robinson, arguably the team’s top defensive performer last season, along with safety starters Richie Grant and Antwan Collier and cornerback Tay Gowan. While cornerback Nevelle Clarke graduated, the hope is former starter Brandon Moore can return after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury.
The defensive line was largely unproven going into 2019, but a big rotation of younger players means UCF has some promising depth. Players to watch include ends Randy Charlton and Tre’mon Morris-Brash, while Kenny Turnier and Kalia Davis form a solid 1-2 punch inside. Last season, Turnier led the team in tackles for a loss with 13.5.
Eric Mitchell and Eriq Gilyard top the linebacker rotation, as the duo tied for third in tackles (77) last season. Tatum Bethune and Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste provide depth after promising freshman seasons.
Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2020
Both punter Andrew Osteen and long snapper Alex Ward return after successful starting debuts in 2019. Field-goal kicker is an open job, and it’s likely that Daniel Obarski, who handled kickoff duties last year, will assume that role. He has some big shoes to fill as Dylan Barnas was extremely solid in that role last season, connecting on 15-of-17 field goals.
UCF’s 2019 season was successful by most metrics, but Josh Heupel’s team was left unfulfilled knowing that it could have accomplished much more, pointing to the fact that the Knights’ three losses were decided by a combined seven points. The desire is to return to where they were in 2017 and 2018 as AAC champions and New Year’s Six bowl representatives. UCF certainly has the talent to do just that.
National Ranking: 22
(Top photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)