In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 26 UCF
Josh Heupel landed one of the most sought-after Group of Five opportunities in college football history. He inherits a team that lost more than a dozen key players, including Tre'Quan Smith, Shaquem Griffin and Mike Hughes, but returns more than a dozen all-conference-caliber players, including McKenzie Milton, Drederick Snelson and Kyle Gibson.
The schedule is more challenging, but — dare I say — UCF has the talent to run the table again in 2018.
2017 Record: 13-0 (8-0, American)
What can be said about UCF's 13-0 season that hasn't already been written, scrutinized, or praised?
It was the best season in program history and one of the most polarizing in college football history. Enjoy it for what it was.
Head Coach: Josh Heupel (1st Year)
"I think this is a place where you don’t have to bounce anymore," Josh Heupel told HERO Sports in April. "This is home. This is part of maybe the most unique opportunity in college football. Largest university and fastest-growing city in America."
While Heupel, like Frost, was most recently a Power Five offensive coordinator, he was still a surprise hire. There will be skepticism because he's a first-time head coach who was fired as Oklahoma's coordinator just three years ago and is now in control of a loaded roster.
WR Tre'Quan Smith, TE Jordan Akins, OT Aaron Evans, DT Jamiyus Pittman, DT Tony Guerad, LB Shaquem Griffin, LB Chequan Burkett, CB Mike Hughes, S Tre Neal
One of the nation's top big-play receivers, Tre'Quan Smith, is gone after averaging 19.8 yards per reception last year. And one of the nation's top big-play tight ends, Jordan Akins, is gone after averaging 16.1 yards per reception last year. The offense also lost all-conference tackle Aaron Evans.
Defensively, the interior line was gutted. Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad helped them allow barely four yards per carry over the last two years and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss. And in addition to Shaquem Griffin, second-leading tackler Chequan Burkett is gone, as is play-making corner and elite return man Mike Hughes.
Safety Tre Neal was a late grad transfer, following Frost to Nebraska.
Returning Offensive Players
QB McKenzie Milton, RB Adrian Killins Jr., RB/WR Otis Anderson, WR Drederick Snelson, WR Gabriel Davis, WR Marlon Williams, C Jordan Johnson
Josh Heupel didn't hire an offensive coordinator to run an offense that ranked first nationally last year in points per play (0.638), second in yards per play (7.4), 10th on third downs (45.8 percent), 17th in yards per rush attempt (5.3), 10th in sack rate (2.9 percent) and ninth in yards per pass completion (15.3).
He'll run a no-huddle offense that will average in the neighborhood of 75 plays per game (72 last year) and be led by a Heisman candidate at quarterback, McKenzie Milton.
“I think we’re a little faster than last year," Milton said, which was followed by a "Way faster than last year" proclamation from linebacker Nate Evans.
Despite the departure of Tre'Quan Smith and Jordan Akins, UCF is loaded at the skill positions, returning their top three running backs four of their top five receivers. Adrian Killins (790 yards, 6.4 yards per carry) and Drederick Snelson (695 yards, 15.1 yards per reception) are the headliners of each group but don't overlook guys like Otis Anderson, a 164-pounder capable of playing receiver or running back who averaged more than seven yards per tote last year.
"He gives you the ability to be multiple in your formations when you’re playing with tempo,” Heupel said of Anderson. “I think that’s something, if you’re going to play with tempo, it’s critical. He’s got the ability to play in the backfield and then split out and play the wide receiver position.”
Wyatt Miller — the best No. 78 in the FBS — and Jordan Johnson lead an offensive line that, like the skill spots, lost high-end talent, but will be one of the conference's best groups. They allowed just one sack per game last year after allowing 2.6 per game in 2016.
Returning Defensive Players
DT Trysten Hill, LB Titus Davis, LB Pat Jasinski, LB Nate Evans, CB Brandon Moore, CB Nevelle Clark, S Kyle Gibson
Last year's defensive coordinator, Erik Chinander, followed Frost to Nebraska after leading a Knights' unit that forced a ton of turnovers (2.5 per game) but was bad on third downs (40.4 percent) and rushing the quarterback (5.5 percent sack rate), and was mediocre against the rush (4.3 yards per carry) and in the red zone (80 percent).
New coordinator Randy Shannon is installing a 4-3 defense — though they did experiment with 3-4 fronts in spring practice — and with a salary that ranks among the highest in the FBS ($1.3 million per year), expectations are high.
Another season from Mike Hughes would've been nice but they have plenty of talent in the secondary to improve upon their 13.2 yards per completion (they allowed more than 14 yards per completion in two of their final three games). Without Neal, senior Kyle Gibson (tied for the team lead with four interceptions) will anchor safety, while junior Nevelle Clark, a 6-foot-1, 185-pounder who loves playing man-to-man and will hit the ever-loving piss out of players, and sophomore Brandon Moore will play corner.
In the front seven, leading tackler Pat Jasinski (below) is back at middle linebacker and will be flanked by Titus Davis, whose breakout season included 67 tackles and five tackles for loss. Both will have more coverage responsibilities in the new system.
“The defense is made for us to make plays,” junior outside linebacker Nate Evans said. “I don't want to sugarcoat or anything. But I love this defense and I love Coach Shannon.”
Up front, Trysten Hill is one of the best in the business. The 330-pounder will lead a group of mostly upperclassmen with little starting experience.
RB Bentavious Thompson, OT Trevor Elbert, CB Aaron Robinson
UCF is set at running back for 2018 and 2019, but redshirt freshman Bentavious Thompson should find a role. A bigger back that Adrian Killins (5-foot-8, 158 pounds), Thompson (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) played well in the spring game and might be their best between-the-tackles runner.
Elsewhere, offensive tackle Trevor Elbert, a JUCO transfer who began his career at Texas A&M, is competing for a starting spot, and sophomore corner Aaron Robinson is eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from Alabama.
UCF opens on the road for the first time since 2012, and while the Knights schedule isn't laced with big-time opponents, it is stronger than last season. It's highlighted by a three-game stretch that includes homes games vs. FAU and Pittsburgh and a trip to North Carolina.
|Thursday, Aug. 30||at UConn|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||vs. South Carolina State|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||at North Carolina|
|Friday, Sept. 21||vs. FAU|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||vs. Pittsburgh|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||vs. SMU|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||at Memphis|
|Saturday, Oct. 20||at East Carolina|
|Thursday, Nov. 1||vs. Temple|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||vs. Navy|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||vs. Cincinnati|
|Friday, Nov. 23||at USF|