Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
No. 22 Central Florida
2017 record: 13-0 (8-0 AAC)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Turning the page from a ‘national title’ with a new coach
How do you turn the page on the best season in your program’s history? And how do you do it with a new coach?
Those are the tasks UCF is faced with in 2018. The Knights rolled through 2017 without a loss, capping it off with a triumph over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Though UCF controversially missed out on the College Football Playoff by a wide margin, AD Danny White was quick to declare the Knights as national champions.
That provided plenty of offseason fodder and will serve as the backdrop for the 2018 Knights, a team coached by Josh Heupel. Heupel replaces Scott Frost, who, in just two years, transformed UCF from winless to undefeated. Now he’s set to patrol the sidelines at his alma mater, Nebraska.
While Frost was leading the way in Orlando, Heupel was the running the offense at Missouri, who averaged 511.5 yards per game. It’s his first head-coaching job, and his team — an undoubtedly talented one — will have a target on its back.
But as a member of the American Athletic Conference, the Knights can still assume the role of the little guy trying to roll with the big boys. That role has suited the Knights well.
Envisioning the Josh Heupel-McKenzie Milton combination
When White announced the hire of Heupel, he made it clear he wanted the stellar offensive play of 2017 to carry over into 2018, even without Frost.
“I believe we’ve identified one of the brightest offensive minds in college football,” White said. “His offensive system is very similar to what we’ve been running. I know he’s going to utilize all the great talent on our roster and continue to add to it.”
That crop of talent starts with quarterback McKenzie Milton, one of the best players college football has to offer. Drew Lock led the nation in TD passes while operating Heupel’s offense at Mizzou while Milton was second to only Heisman winner Baker Mayfield in passer rating. Milton threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns while adding 613 yards and eight scores rushing.
It’s hard not to envision Milton’s play — and the offense’s as a whole — maintaining a high level of play under Heupel. A few of Milton’s top receivers (most notably Tre’Quan Smith) left for the NFL, but Dredrick Snelson (46 catches, 695 yards, 8 TDs) should be ready to take over the No. 1 role. Two excellent backs, Adrian Killins Jr. and Otis Anderson, also return. Anderson is one of the more versatile players in the AAC and is listed as a hybrid RB/WR.
All of that speed and athleticism is playing behind an experienced offensive line. It’ll be another long year for AAC defenses.
Replacing Shaquem Griffin and Mike Hughes on defense
UCF was pretty solid defensively for much of the year, but gave up a lot of points against its two toughest AAC opponents: USF (42) and Memphis (55).
The unit returns six starters, including leading tackler Pat Jasinski and senior safety Kyle Gibson. However, the best two players from the 2017 defense — linebacker Shaquem Griffin and cornerback Mike Hughes — are now on NFL rosters. They are not easily replaced.
Griffin was one of the best stories in college football. With his 13.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks, he was one of the better players, too. Meanwhile, the well-traveled Hughes totaled 49 tackles, 11 pass breakups, four interceptions and three special teams touchdowns. He was a first round NFL pick.
Two Alabama transfers, LB Shawn Burgess-Becker and CB Aaron Robinson, are intriguing candidates to fill the void.
Dredrick Snelson, WR: Snelson made the leap from 17 catches as a freshman to 46 as a sophomore. Expect another jump in 2018. Tre’Quan Smith and tight end Jordan Akins moved on to the next level, leaving an opening for Snelson to be the Knights’ top receiver. The Miami native averaged 15.1 yards per reception last fall and scored five of his eight touchdowns over the team’s final three games.
Game to watch: Oct. 13 at Memphis
UCF’s 62-55 double-overtime win over Memphis in the AAC title game last fall was one of the best games of the 2017 season. Who wouldn’t want to see the rematch? Memphis looked primed to spoil UCF’s undefeated season when it overcame a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit and forced overtime. But the Knights won it in 2OT to seal a spot in a CFP bowl game.
The best-case scenario is a repeat of 2017: an undefeated regular season, an AAC title and a win in a big bowl. It’s the reality of the four-team Playoff era. It’s a longshot that any Group of Five team will ever earn a shot to compete for the national title — until the field expands to eight.
That non-conference slate is a lot tougher this year, especially the late September stretch: at North Carolina, vs. Florida Atlantic and vs. Pittsburgh. The Knights draw Memphis and USF on the road this year, too. Three or four losses wouldn’t be terribly shocking.
The Knights aren’t going undefeated again, but they will win the AAC. They’ll enter the conference title game at 10-2 with losses to FAU and Memphis, but the rematch with Memphis with the AAC crown on the line will go in the Knights favor.
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