UCF Knights: CFN College Football Preview 2021

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College Football News Preview 2021: Previewing, predicting, and looking ahead to the UCF season with what you need to know.

Contact/Follow @ColFootballNews & @PeteFiutak

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
UCF Knights Schedule Analysis
– UCF Knights Previews
2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015

2020 Record: 6-4 overall, 5-3 in AAC
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn, 1st year (77-38 overall)
2020 CFN Final Ranking: 70
2020 CFN Preview Ranking: 30
2019 CFN Final Ranking: 19

UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: Offense

UCF might not have won like it’s used to in a 6-4 season, but it was supposed to be a rebuild and yet the offense was still amazing.

Now enters new head coach Gus Malzahn, and the offense that finished second in the nation in yards and eighth in points – cranking out 568 yards and 42 points per game – should be every bit as strong with eight starters expected back.

So what’s going to be different from the Josh Heupel era? Expect a bit more power to the running game, a lot more midrange throws, big things about to come from the tight end, and a bit more ball control.

QB Dillon Gabriel is back after throwing for 3,570 yards and 32 touchdowns with just four picks. McKenzie Milton left for Florida State, but there are a few nice backup options starting with redshirt freshman Parker Navarro. Now the receivers have to emerge.

Smallish, speedy Jaylon Robinson returns, and Ryan O’Keefe is a decent option, but the real pop could come from the transfer portal. Nate Craig-Myers went from Auburn to Colorado State to follow Malzahn to UCF. He’s a deep threat to go along with Brandon Johnson from Tennessee and former big-time Notre Dame get Jordan Johnson.

And there’s going to be work for the tight end now. The Knights have a slew of options to fold into the mix starting with former Wisconsin Badger Jake Hescock who caught three touchdown passes last year for the Knights.

All five starters are expected back on a line that was okay – not amazing – at keeping defenses out of the backfield. Senior guard Cole Schneider and center Matthew Lee are the stars of the bunch, but it’s a good line overall. Now the backs have to be there to block for.

Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson are gone, but Bentavious Thompson is a veteran quick back who’ll likely take over. There’s a whole lot of speed and pop from Virginia transfer RJ Harvey – a quarterback who’ll likely be a running back – and Auburn’s Mark Anthony Richards to add even more pop. Sophomore Johnny Richardson needs the ball in his hands more, too.

– What You Need To Know: Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
UCF Knights Schedule Analysis

NEXT: UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: Defense

4. UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: Defense

The defense was a problem. It struggled to get off the field, allowed almost 500 yards and 33 points per game, and it struggled with just about every decent passing game. There needs to be an improvement overall, and nine starters are back for defensive coordinators Travis Williams and David Gibbs to work with.

For all of the issues, the pass rush and plays behind the line were there. However, the D loses top sacker Kenny Turnier to TCU, and it also lost Randy Charlton to Mississippi State.

However, former Auburn Tiger Big Kat Bryant is expected to come in along with solid interior pass rusher Ricky Barber from WKU. Throw them into the rotation with the four starters up front from the bowl game loss to BYU, and there should be a quick improvement.

There’s no replacing safety Richie Grant, but veteran Eriq Gilyard is a terrific veteran linebacker to go along with 215-pound junior Tatum Bethune. The linebackers can move, Derek Gainous is a good veteran safety, and the corners there’s size and experience at the corners.

– What You Need To Know: Offense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
UCF Knights Schedule Analysis

NEXT: UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Best UCF Knights Offensive Player

QB Dillon Gabriel, Jr.
How do you possibly replace a talent like McKenzie Milton? Dillon Gabriel proved over the last two years that he could keep the UCF quarterback position amazing.

Milton led the Knights to massive things before suffering a horrific injury, and now he’s getting a new start at Florida State. UCF worked through a few quarterback options, and then Gabriel stepped up and turned into another big-time passer from Hawaii.

The lefty needs to be a bit more accurate, and he’s not too great for the ground game, but he’ll bomb away for close to ten yards per throw and he’s a proven playmaker with 61 touchdown passes and 11 picks in his two seasons.

2. WR Marlon Williams, Sr.
3. OG Cole Schneider, Sr.
4. WR Jaylon Robinson, Jr.
5. C Marlon Lee, Soph.

Related

UCF Football Schedule 2021, Analysis

Best UCF Knights Defensive Player

LB Eriq Gilyard, Sr.
The 5-11, 228-pound veteran holds up well on the inside and has been through enough battles to be among the team’s most reliable defenders. He’s been one of the team’s top tacklers over the last few years with 174 stops with 18.5 tackles for loss in his three seasons. Last year he started to force more big plays, and this season he might be turned loose even more in the new D.

2. S Derek Gainous, Sr.
3. LB Tatum Bethune, Jr.
4. DT Cam Goode, Jr.
5. CB Corey Thornton, Soph.

Top Incoming UCF Knights Transfer

DE Big Kat Bryant, Sr.
Just when it seemed like the former Auburn Tiger was a lock to be an Oklahoma Sooner, he pivoted to UCF to play for his old coach.

He hasn’t been quite the pass rusher he was supposed to be as a big-time recruit – just ten sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in his four years at AU – but the defense needs as much big-time talent as it can get for the rotation. There are several other big transfers coming in to play for Gus Malzahn, too, and Bryant will instantly matter in the rotation.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
UCF Knights Schedule Analysis

NEXT: UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

UCF Knights Biggest Key: Offense

Nitpicking time – get more out of the running game. The veteran offensive line needs to be a bit stronger in pass protection and should do more for a new group of running backs that can fly.

The passing attack got most of the spotlight over the last few seasons, but the rushing attack averaged more than five yards per pop from 2017 to 2019. Last year’s ground game had some terrific running backs, and there was plenty of production, but the ground game averaged 4.5 yards per carry.

UCF failed to run for 200 yards five times. It struggled to get going in the win over Temple, and the other four sub-200 outings were the four losses.

UCF ran for 275 yards in the blowout loss to Michigan early in 2016. It lost 14 games since then and failed to run for 200 yards in all of them.

UCF Knights Biggest Key: Defense

The secondary has to tighten up. Everyone will bomb away on UCF to try keeping up, but there’s a difference between getting into back-and-forth fight and getting hammered in the big games.

The 2019 UCF pass defense allowed more than 300 yards once, giving up fewer than six yards per pass and 17 touchdowns. The 2018 D survived and kept rolling despite allowing more than 300 three times – and 400 in two of those.

The 2017 pass defense was torched, but it came up with 20 picks in the unbeaten season – it allowed 7.4 yards per pass and 24 scores.

Last year?

UCF allowed 8.5 yards per throw with 26 touchdowns and just nine picks. Worse yet, it got ripped apart for close to 1,200 yards over the last three games of last season and gave up over 400 yards three times.

UCF Knights Key Player To A Successful Season

RB Bentavious Thompson, Sr.
Take your pick of several defensive players who need to step up to make this a big first year under Gus Malzahn, but the running game has to do more, and it has to do it without Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson around.

The 6-1, 197-pound Thompson averaged six yards per carry over his three seasons with 604 yards and eight scores as a sophomore and 382 yards and five touchdowns last year.

There are plenty of other running back options, but if Thompson can be a 1,000-yard back, the already amazing offense will be absolutely unstoppable.

UCF Knights Key Game To The 2021 Season

at Cincinnati, Oct. 16
Of course the opener against Boise State is a tone-setter for the Gus Malzahn era, and going to Louisville will be a moment for the national spotlight, but beating Cincinnati on the road would be the bigger than those other two test games combined.

It might be the first of two meetings no matter what – these two might go at it in the American Athletic Conference Championship – but this is the measuring-stick moment for both. If they’re as good as they’re expected to be, it’ll be one of the biggest games of the college football season.

UCF Knights Schedule Analysis

2020 UCF Knights Fun Stats

– Penalties: UCF 92 for 748 yards – 70 for 599 yards
– Time of Possession: Opponents 32:29 – UCF 27:30
– 2nd Half Scoring: Opponents 193 – UCF 178

NEXT: UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

UCF Knights College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

All Gus Malzahn did was come up with eight straight winning seasons at Auburn, came within a defensive stop of winning a national title, got to a second SEC Championship, and beat Nick Saban and Alabama three times in fantastic fashion.

He got Auburn to that national championship appearance in his first year on the job, and he won the Sun Belt title at Arkansas State in his one and only season there.

And now he inherits a team that’s good enough to win the American Athletic Conference title and a program that’s used to being considered very, very good.

The world might be gushing over Cincinnati right now in the AAC, but UCF is going to be right there.

Set The UCF Knights Regular Season Win Total At … 9.5

The defense has to tighten up in a big way – it has nine starters returning – and the offense has to keep up the production after finishing second in the nation, but again, UCF got itself a head coach who knows how to win.

A winning season and a bowl appearance are givens now at UCF. However, Boise State at Louisville, at Cincinnati, Memphis, at SMU – there are just enough nasty games to keep this from being that run to the College Football Playoff like Knight fans might like.

On the flip side, those games are just big enough and good enough that if UCF happens to get hot and win them all, it’ll be deep in the discussion for something historic.

Gus has done it before in his first season at a gig. Winning a conference title this time around might be the least surprising of his three.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
UCF Knights Schedule Analysis