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UCF Football: 2021 Knights Season Preview and Prediction

Dillon Gabriel, UCF Knights Football

Dillon Gabriel, UCF Knights Football

It’s a new era at UCF, as former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn takes over in Orlando after Josh Heupel took the top spot at Tennessee. This program has been one of the best at the Group of 5 level, and all of the pieces are in place to contend for a finish in the top 25 once again. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel pilots an explosive attack, with help at receiver coming through a couple of key additions in the transfer portal. The Knights need to improve on defense, but there’s talent and experience returning at all three levels. UCF will be tested right away with Boise State visiting the Bounce House for the opener, along with a trip to Cincinnati on Oct. 16.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing UCF's Offense for 2021 

After a standout freshman campaign, Dillon Gabriel solidified himself in 2020 as one of the nation's best quarterbacks. His 3,570 passing yards ranked fifth in FBS, and he threw 32 touchdown passes to only four interceptions. Gabriel has always been incredibly proficient with the deep ball, leading the nation with 35 completions of passes thrown 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

UCF graduated its top two rushers, which should lead to an enhanced opportunity for senior Bentavious Thompson. But plenty of eyes will be on a pair of incoming transfers: former Auburn running back Mark-Antony Richards, a promising young talent, and Isaiah Bowser, who spent the last three years at Northwestern.

The bigger question may be at wide receiver as UCF loses its top target, Marlon Williams, who averaged nearly 130 receiving yards per game in 2020. Jaylon Robinson seems poised to step into the No. 1 spot. Three transfers are also expected to play a big role: Brandon Johnson, formerly of Tennessee, Jordan Johnson from Notre Dame and Auburn transfer Nate Craig-Myers.

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Previewing UCF's Defense for 2021 

UCF has big shoes to fill in the secondary with three impact players departing, notably three-time, first-team All-AAC safety Richie Grant. Leading the returning group is Derek Gainous, who emerged late last season as a reliable safety and the team's fourth-leading tackler. Georgia transfer Divaad Wilson showed flashes and should be ready to assume full-time duties at the other safety spot.

Several freshmen rotated among the cornerback unit last season with Corey Thornton and Davonte Brown surfacing as the top duo. Jaiden Francois, a former Nebraska transfer who was not cleared to play in 2020, seems the favorite to take over at nickel back.

The defensive line struggled with depth issues in 2020, but it gets a big boost with the return of tackle Kalia Davis from opt-out along with incoming defensive line transfers Big Kat Bryant, a former All-SEC player at Auburn, and Ricky Barber Jr., a Freshman All-American at WKU. Tre'Mon Morris-Brash was UCF's best pass rusher with 3.5 sacks in 2020.

Though the linebacker unit was plagued by inconsistency a year ago, it is the most experienced group on defense thanks to the return of senior Eriq Gilyard and junior Tatum Bethune, the team's second- and third-leading tacklers, respectively.

Previewing UCF's Specialists for 2021 

Amari Johnson has been groomed to be next in line returning punts, replacing Otis Anderson. In his first season on field-goal duty, kicker Daniel Obarski connected on 12-of-17 attempts but struggled on longer kicks, going 0-for-2 on attempts of 40 or more yards. Long snapper Alex Ward is one of the nation's best at his position.

Final Analysis

While the Knights posted eye-popping offensive numbers every year under former head coach Josh Heupel, the program had been trending downward with four losses in 2019 and a disappointing 6–4 mark in 2020. So when Heupel left for Tennessee in February and was replaced by former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, many believed UCF got an upgrade. Malzahn, who seems rejuvenated with the change of scenery, inherits a talented offensive team with one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Gabriel. If the defense can take a big step, UCF has a chance to contend with Cincinnati at the top of the American.

National Ranking: 30

Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions

(Dillon Gabriel photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)