Countdown to kickoff: 33 days
As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what Georgia Tech’s opponents have to offer.
2017 UCF Knights
The Knights are feeling the biggest losses on defense - the entire starting secondary graduated, as well as three of the starting linebackers in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s 3-4. UCF’s defense had taken a huge step forward from being one of the worst defenses in college football in 2015 to one of the better ones in 2016 thanks to the defensive minds of Chinander and head coach Scott Frost. There’s no way they’ll be as good this year as they were last year, but they’ll still be miles better than they were in 2015.
Kickoff specialist Donald De La Haye is also out after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA. You probably heard about that one.
On the flip side for UCF’s defense, the entire starting defensive line returns, and, while they would be considered a bit undersized as far as defensive lines go, they bring back 19 tackles for loss amongst the three of them, and only one of those three - Jamiyus Pittman - will be a senior this year. The line was a bit soft against the run last year, so Paul Johnson may punish them with QB/BB play repeatedly if he sees its working early.
At this point, I’ve covered every position on UCF’s defense except one - outside linebacker, held down by reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin. Despite that being his first year at that position after switching from safety, Griffin led the AAC in sacks (with 11.5) and racked up 92 tackles, 57 of which were solo - and he did all of that with one hand. (That’s not a joke, he doesn’t have a left hand.)
On the offensive side for the Knights, redshirt sophomore McKenzie Milton is the heir apparent to start at quarterback after having won the position early last year. Notable pieces surround him are..... not a whole lot, as UCF had one of the worst offenses in FBS last year. There’s a lot of potential, looking at recruiting stars alone.... but also a lot of youth, and that potential hasn’t translated to a whole lot on the field..... yet. One name to look out for is Tre’quan Smith, who led the team in receiving last year with 57 catches for 853 yards and who was named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List.
UCF does have one notable transfer newly eligible this year - former Alabama safety Shawn Burgess-Becker. A four star recruit out of high school, Burgess-Becker was a special teams and defensive contributor for the Crimson Tide in 2015, playing in every game except for the national championship game. He turned down interest from Miami, Oregon, and Wisconsin (amongst others) to play for the Knights and has a good chance to make an impact right away.
Two years ago, UCF was better known for winning its despondent fans free beer than winning football games, probably because it didn’t win any of the latter. New coach Scott Frost turned them around in a hurry last year and immediately got the Knights back into bowl eligibility. His hire is also already paying major dividends on the recruiting front: 247Sports ranked the past signing class 54th, the highest of all G5 teams and higher than several P5 classes. All of this points to the Knights reaching some pretty rare heights...... next year. As for this year, there’s no reason to think they won’t be just as good as - or even a bit better - than they were last year. Depending on how new hires elsewhere in the AAC East shake out, the Knights could be perennial contenders for the AAC crown. But, again, that’s probably not until at least next year. They’ll have to settle for “pretty good” this year.
Projected Record: 8-4 (6-2 AAC)