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Bullseye: UCF Knights

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The War On I-4 has cemented itself as one of college football’s heated emerging rivalries as the Bulls and Knights continue to battle.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Fiesta Bowl - LSU v UCF Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Previous Bullseye Opponent Primers:

Rivalry weekend is upon us in this final Bullseye primer and The War on I-4 looks to continue to provide entertainment and fuel for both fanbases as the Bulls and Knights are set to duke it out on Black Friday.

UCF Knights

Narrative

UCF has controlled and reigned over the AAC over the last two years with back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, back-to-back conference championships and back-to-back New Year’s Six Bowl Games.

The general consensus around the Group of Five schools is that the top dog is the top dog until you beat the top dog. Boise State held the crown for many years, as did TCU and Utah, but the plague in college football is consistency. It’s much easier to stay consistent at the top when you are recruiting blue-chip recruits, such as Clemson, Alabama, and Georgia, but for the Group of Five, it becomes much more difficult as you have to mold your team around the talent you have available.

Willie Taggart learned the hard way trying to jam a square peg into a round hole his first two seasons at USF but on the other side of the coin, Scott Frost was able to create magic with the talent available to him by molding players like McKenzie Milton, Adrian Killins, Shaquill and Shaquem Griffin into stars and leaders. The baton seems to be handed off smoothly from Frost to Heupel, as a beat was not missed despite players graduating. UCF won each of their games in 2017 by 21.5 points, and then in 2018 by 19.1 points, keeping many programs confused on how to stop their Knights roll.

Much of the progress and turnaround can be accredited to the development of the aforementioned quarterback McKenzie Milton, a lowly three-star recruit from the main island of Hawaii who turned UCF from the laughing stock of college football with an 0-12 season to a perfect 12-0 mark in two seasons. His ability to throw on a dime, stay elusive in the pocket and make the right decision in his progressions had him as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy last season.

On November 23rd, 2018, McKenzie Milton was scrambling for a first down against USF during the War on I-4 and the Knights leading 7-0 early in the second. Milton was tackled from behind by Tyrone Barber while simultaneously being upended by Mazzi Wilkins, the result was a devastating leg injury that left Raymond James Stadium at a hush while one of the best young stars in college football laid motionless on the ground. Charlie Strong, USF Athletic Trainers, and UCF support staff rushed to the quarterback to place his leg in an air-cast to rush him to the hospital. Serious nerve and artery damage to the knee almost resulted in his leg being amputated, but the doctors and medical staff were able to perform successful surgeries, which have resulted in McKenzie making incredible progress on a leg he very well could have lost.

UCF would go on to win the conference championship the next week with yet another victory over the Memphis Tigers and then appear inn the Fiesta Bowl, where the LSU Tigers snapped their 25-game winning streak.

Whether or not Milton will be able to play again is to be seen, but for the Knights, they have to soldier on without their star quarterback. Their quest for a three-peat is a bumpy road ahead, but key areas of strength will have the Knights as the favorites once again.

Personnel

The Knights have adopted a speedy play style in hopes of leaving defenders in the dust and thus far, have been extremely successful due to the aforementioned development of Milton as a QB. The run plays to the outside would not be there if he possess deadly accuracy in his deep pass, and vice versa. His devastating leg injury and an injury to Darriel Mack Jr. leaves the Knights with three options, and only one of them was on the team last season.

Many think that Notre Dame transfer QB Brandon Wimbush is a lock for the starting position. Making an appearance on the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award watch list, Wimbush had a 13-3 record for the Fighting Irish the last three years but was benched for Ian Book in Week 4 last season. Wimbush struggled with his accuracy at ND by only completing around 50% of his passes, but his ability to run the ball kept him as a threat for every defense.

Some are looking at incoming freshman Dillon Gabriel, who went to the same high school as Milton at Mililani High School in O’ahu. Gabriel shattered most of the state records in Hawaii, including ones set by Milton and 2019 Heisman favorite Tua Tagovailoa. However, the advanced speed of the game in college are leading some to skepticism of him being Week 1 starter as a true freshman.

Lastly, Quadry Jones fills out the QB room. A local kid who grew up rooting for UCF, he was lightly recruited out of high school as a low two-star. He ended up walking on to the program and earned a scholarship this past May.

So, with a three-way QB race for the starting position, who will end up being the starter? Being just days away from kick-off, truth be told it doesn’t matter. Brian Murphy from Black & Gold Banneret breaks it down, but let’s be real, all three QBs will most likely take plenty of in-game snaps because they are 45.5 point favorites over Florida A&M. If the train continues to roll, the game will be out of hand by the 2nd quarter, and Heupel will be able to sort out his QB room by watching his players play in real time against a defense that is not wearing black and gold.

For UCF, the QB play should play second fiddle to the rest of the offense, which is weird to say about a football team. The running back group is in the top 5 in college football, with Adrian Killins (1,092 yards from scrimmage, 8 TDs) splitting time at receiver, running back and kick returns to utilize his speed. Greg McRae (1,298 yards from scrimmage, 11 TDs) stormed onto the scene as a ‘walk-on’ transfer from the Naval Academy, averaging 8.9 yards per carry last season. Otis Anderson (505 yards from scrimmage, 7 TDs) gets time at RB, WR, and as a punt returner, so if any of those three become in need of a break, they can all be replaced with each other.

Catching passes for UCF will be a similar looking group of players, however they’ll be sorely missing slot receiver Dredrick Snelson. Gabriel Davis (53 catches, 815 yards, 7 TDs), Marlon Williams (18 catches, 234 yards, 1 TD), and Ole Miss Transfer Tre Nixon (40 catches, 562 yards, 4 TDs) will provide speed and downfield blocking for the Knights, with any of the aforementioned running backs being able to provide relief as well. Tight End Michael Colubiale has graduated, but backing him up will be Wisconsin transfer Jake Hescock and Notre Dame Transfer Jonathan MacCallistor.

Along the offensive line, the Knights will have to replace a combined 80 starts from their graduated linemen. The depth was there and with three all-conference linemen projected to start, it’s hard to call it a weak spot. Jake Brown, Jordan Johnson and Cole Schneider all return after first team All-AAC selections last season at left tackle, center, and right guard, respectively. Filling the other two spots will be left guard Samuel Jackson and JUCO transfer Josh McMullen at right tackle.

The defensive line is by far the biggest area in which UCF lost the most talent as they must replace nearly every contributing member including the two deep. Randy Shannon and Josh Heupel have done a good job recruiting talent to fill those gaps, with two JUCO transfers and a Virginia Tech transfer in Cam Goode. Brendon Hayes is one of the few returns from last season, and will have to step up big time to replace a defensive line that was ranked in the top 30 in run stuff.

The heart and soul of the defense, Pat Jasinski has graduated, after being one of the vocal leaders from the disastrous 0-12 season. Replacing him will look to be Eriq Gilyard, a slightly undersized linebacker, but makes up for it in speed. Next to him are returning linebackers Nate Evans and Eric Mitchell.

The strongest part of the defense will be the defensive backs, with star safety Richie Grant leading the way. The first team all-AAC DB will enter his junior season surrounded by familiarity, with fellow juniors Brandon Moore and Antwan Collier, plus senior Nevelle Clarke filling out the secondary.

The special teams unit has some gaps to fill as well, as the long snapper, kicker, and punter have all graduated, leaving behind new transfer kicker Dylan Barnas as the projected starter with four freshmen backing him up at either punter or place kicking duties. However, with Killins and Anderson returning kicks and punts, the threat for big special teams plays are still there for UCF.

Outlook

As we roll into the last regular game of the season, could the outlook on both teams be completely different from last year or it will continue the trend of UCF’s dominance the last few years?

With USF making strides in the right direction on offense, UCF has to keep pace in both recruiting and execution to stay on top. As long as they continue to roll the AAC, the bigger the target on their back becomes.

Question marks on both teams will arise and won’t be answered by Week 1. USF’s game against Wisconsin can be a litmus test for the #ShowAndGo offense, but a formidable foe stands in the way and the Badgers can easily expose those weak points on offense and defense.

For UCF, they’re playing an FCS school where they are the heavy favorites and the questions about quarterback won’t be answered until Stanford comes into town in Week 3. They can use Florida A&M and FAU as live scrimmage games to make a decision, but will any of the three be able to replicate McKenzie’s Magic? Additionally, the defensive line that allowed the secondary to become one of the best in the country will need to be replaced and someone will need to step up and be the leader along the front for the Knights.

For both programs, no longer are either fighting for relevancy in the state of Florida and in college football. Gone are the days of obscurity behind the big three in the state. Today and in the future, Tampa and Orlando are home to college football teams that traditional Power Five programs are beginning to respect. The 2017 War on I-4 is still being regarded as one of the best college football games this decade and although the hatred between the two programs grows stronger with each passing Thanksgiving, each are pushing one another to be better.