In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
2014 Record: 9-4 (7-1 in AAC)
Head Coach: George O’Leary (.588)
Returning Starters: 10/24 (5 OFF/4 DEF/1 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 59th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 12 @ Stanford
- Sept. 26 @ South Carolina
- Oct. 24 v. Houston
- Oct. 31 @ Cincinnati
- Nov. 19 v. East Carolina
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE KNIGHTS
Two years ago, UCF was a virtual BCS Buster in the last year of the series before the College Football Playoff, taking advantage of the last season of the former Big East’s place at the blueblood club of college football after realigning from Conference USA prior to the 2013 season. That lone year as a member of an AQ league paid dividends, as the Knights pulled off one of the largest upsets in the history of the BCS with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor:
UCF was one of the early success stories of the exodus of teams moving up from I-AA football, and 2013 provided the culmination of a decade of efforts by head coach George O’Leary to bring the Knights to relevance. While last year was a rough rebuilding year in Orlando after the graduation of Blake Bortles, Storm Johnson, and the rest of the core that won in Glendale over Baylor, the Knights nevertheless won nine games in the metamorphosing American Athletic Conference. They will be trying to replicate that success in a fully-reconfigured AAC.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE KNIGHTS IN 2015
Now that the AAC has increased to 12 teams, it will be hosting a championship game for the first time. That means the Knights don’t have to finish ahead of everyone in the conference; instead they merely need to surpass East Carolina and Cincinnati to finish atop the AAC East and then defeat whoever emerges out of the AAC West. And as they learned both in 2013 and with Boise State last year, they don’t have to finish perfectly, merely atop the heap of teams in the Group of Five.
They are a largely untested team, but they are also a skilled team that benefits from one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. UCF also has the chance to pull off a pair of Power Five upsets in September, traveling to Stanford and South Carolina; wins in either or both would vault the Knights quickly up the Access Bowl Power Rankings. They managed to avoid Memphis in interdivisional play, and get to play both East Carolina and Houston at home, making the Cincinnati road trip the largest test of the season for a team that otherwise sees its schedule stack up rather favorably between challenges and opportunities.
WHAT COULD COST THE KNIGHTS THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
The biggest hindrance for the Knights is the fact that they are one of the most inexperienced teams in all of the FBS ranks. UCF has just five starting offensive players and four starting defenders returning from last year’s team, turning what was already a young roster even younger in the process. Justin Holman returns at quarterback, but he will be missing two offensive linemen from last year and working with an essentially brand new set of receivers. New players will have to step up in a hurry, with more than 40 percent of the total yards generated last season now gone from the team.
Worse, though, is how many players were lost on a defense that was ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards allowed. UCF’s success in 2014 was largely a function of that lockdown defense, which held opponents to two touchdowns or less in seven of 13 games en route to a 9-4 finish. That unit lost nearly two-thirds of the total tackles made last year, and new faces will have to slide efficiently into those vacated positions if the Knights aren’t going to completely sputter out. That is hardly a guarantee, making UCF a volatile bet in 2015.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
FIU comes to Orlando to open the season, and UCF should have no problem against a team who has been faltering in recent years. That will serve as the prelude for a cross-country trip to Palo Alto to face Stanford, which was in its own slump last season but remains a Pac-12 North contender. A battle of defenses could allow for the game to stay close enough for an upset in California. The return home to face FCS Furman will serve as a guaranteed victory, and the trip to South Carolina is another opportunity to upset an SEC opponent. The Knights should be good enough to knock off either the Cardinal or the Gamecocks, but probably not both; consequently, the team will enter October at 3-1 in the standings.
The level of competition tapers off, with a trip to New Orleans to face Tulane opening the second month of the regular season. The largely one-way “Civil Conflict” rivalry game against UConn will take place in Orlando on October 9, and while the Huskies will be motivated they probably won’t be able to pull off a second straight upset over UCF. The trip to Philadelphia to face Temple the following weekend will thus push the Knights to 6-1 in the standings, its only loss coming to a Power Five school (take your pick which one). That will make the visit from Houston and the trip to Cincinnati pivotal in determining the final composition of the AAC standings. The Cougars will likely be vanquished, but the house of cards will come tumbling in Ohio the day before Halloween.
The road trip to Tulsa to open November will either result in an inexplicable slump, which is possible in this reignited rivalry game from both teams’ Conference USA days, but UCF will more likely recover from its loss to the Bearcats to make it to 8-2 in the standings. A bye week follows, allowing the Knights to recuperate prior to its showdown with East Carolina as both teams try to maintain a shot at the AAC East. Home-field advantage will prove the difference in a close contest, and UCF will cap the season with a closer-than-expected win over South Florida to finish the regular season 10-2. Unfortunately for George O’Leary’s crew, though, the loss to Cincinnati will be the difference between a spot in the AAC championship game and outright elimination from Access Bowl contention. The team will be less motivated than usual for their bowl game knowing that a big-money game fell through their hands yet again, and will end the season with a blowout defeat.
PREDICTED RECORD: 10-3 (7-1 in AAC)