ORLANDO, Fla. -- Nevermind the proximity to Disney World, Central Florida coach George O'Leary's team officially is moving to the "grownups table" of college football.
As part of a slew of conference affiliation changes throughout the Football Bowl Subdivision, UCF is preparing for its inaugural year of competition in the American Athletic Conference -- colloquially known as the American. While the season has yet to begin, UCF arguably has scored its biggest victory already, winning its appeal of a one-year bowl ban handed down by the NCAA last summer.
Playing in the erstwhile Big East allows the Golden Knights to be in the running for a BCS bowl appearance at season's end should they win the league title. To be fair, if UCF pulled off that feat in 2013, it would be somewhat of a surprise. The Golden Knights were picked to finish fourth in the American, behind Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers.
Facing those three teams, along with new geographic rival USF, is just part of one of the more ambitious gridiron schedules in UCF history. The Golden Knights' non-conference docket includes dates against Penn State and South Carolina. Coach George O'Leary thinks those games will do more than anything to test the mettle of this team, which brings back
"The conference itself has a perception already, just like there is one with the SEC, the Big Ten, the PAC-12 and so on," O'Leary said during his preseason news conference. "How'd you fare against Penn State? How'd you fare against all the different teams out of all the different conferences you'll play? They play a bunch of them and you got to win those games. If you want to sit there and play that way, you got to beat these people and that's what the nature of the game is. In conference, you're going to play competitive teams and you'll be a champion, but you're still going to go back to how well did you do out of conference against the very competitive out-of-conference teams."
The degree of difficulty this season is a steep one, especially for UCF's offense. The Golden Knights' schedule includes five games against teams that ranked in the top 30 nationally in defense last season: Connecticut, Rutgers, South Carolina, Louisville and Penn State. Three of those six squads ranked in the top 11.
The good news? The cupboard is rather stocked on offense. Even though only six starters return, one of them is quarterback Blake Bortles, who surpassed the 3,000 yard milestone last season. He's got a talented set of skill-position players around him. Bigger issues exist on defense, where six starters and a ton of veteran playmakers must be replaced.
UCF isn't taking any chances with regard to the health of its incumbent starting quarterback, Blake Bortles. After Bortles hit his hand on a teammate's helmet in practice during preseason camp, the coaching staff sent him to the sideline for about a week to rest the resulting contusion on his right thumb. Bortles, who threw for 23 touchdowns in 2012 against only four interceptions, is only a junior.
"It was more precautionary on my part," coach George O'Leary told the media. "I've got burned in the past not doing that. I was just making sure the thumb was where it needed to be so he could grip the ball without further damaging anything."
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: It's a steady diet of non-conference dates for UCF before it opens conference play in the American come October. The Golden Knights' out-of-conference schedule is a daunting one, particularly late in the month with back-to-back games at Penn State and against South Carolina that sandwich an open date. That game with the Gamecocks is at home, and makes South Carolina arguably the most touted and highly-ranked opponent ever to come to Bright House Networks Stadium, assuming the Gamecocks avoid any early stumbling blocks themselves. Going 2-2 in the first month would be solid. Winning three of four would cement UCF as a team to be reckoned with in 2013.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Keep QB Blake Bortles healthy. UCF is going against a slew of stout defenses, and the onus is on the offensive line to keep its productive, veteran signal caller upright and healthy. The focal points up front are twin brothers Justin and Jordan McCray, who are slated to start at the two guard spots and expected to contend for all-conference accolades. Veteran LT Torrian Wilson remains responsible for protecting the blind side of Bortles. The Golden Knights have a deep and talented receiving corps, headlined by J.J. Worton and former quarterback Jeff Godfrey.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The losses on defense are vast and significant. UCF's tentative starting quartet on the defensive line is one of the youngest and most inexperienced groups among all BCS conference teams, with two redshirt freshmen slated to start at end and only one senior in the entire two deep. UCF also must replace two multi-year starters in the secondary. Among them is Kemal Ishmael, who led the team in tackles in three consecutive seasons and ended his career as the most prolific tackling defensive back in program history.
--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.