Six thoughts from UCF’s win over Georgia Tech
1. Has any single athlete done more for his school’s on-field product than McKenzie Milton? All I could think about on Saturday as Dillon Gabriel torched Georgia Tech’s defense again and again is that this stellar quarterback is only here because of Milton.
It wasn’t enough for KZ to help elevate UCF to one of the most well-known teams in the nation or lead the Knights on a 25-game win streak. He even had to go ahead and scout, then recruit, his replacement. Gabriel is a blessing. So many fledgling programs end up dropping out of relevance after a quarterback change, and that could easily have been UCF after Milton’s injury.
But instead, Gabriel would already be sitting on the roster ready to go just a few months later. Milton got here in 2016. He ensured that UCF would have a Heisman-level quarterback on the field into the mid-2020s. That’s truly an unpayable debt.
2. Did… Did Josh Heupel try to run up the score? UCF’s fourth quarter explosion of points gave the Knights a chance to do something that’s always valuable and throw some true freshmen onto the field for the final few minutes of the game. We got to see Parker Navarro, Johnny Richardson, Paul Rubelt and friends take the field as Knights for the first time.
And, as is often the case when you put a bunch of fresh legs out there, they looked good. The Knights moved down the field pretty quickly and actually ended up in scoring position. And guess what? As the clock ticked down, UCF kept running plays. With one second on the clock, it appears that Heupel even tried to score. I repeat… WITH ONE SECOND ON THE CLOCK, THEY TRIED TO SCORE. IN A 28-POINT GAME!
Maybe it was all about giving the young guys some reps, but I love it. I love it. I know I’m way ahead of myself here, but if UCF is going to have any real shot at the Playoff then they need to demolish teams. This was the one area that bothered me back during the win streak. The team tended to take its foot off the pedal in the second half of games, letting the opponent make the score look quite a bit closer than it was. Hell, it became a running joke in my part of the press box to look out for the garbage time touchdown the Knights always allow.
Now, yes, this was a very small and not totally real complaint. As UCF was going 25-0, I didn’t really care that much if the team beat Navy by 11 or by 30. But this year, it matters. If there was ever a time a Group of Five team could make the Playoff, it would be this whacky, chaotic season. So, screw it. Let’s snap the ball with a second left while up 28. Let’s bury everyone.
3. This defense is really taking bend-don’t-break to the next level. Let’s be honest here. Georgia Tech’s offense had its way with UCF for large chunks of Saturday’s game. They were able to consistently move the ball and freshman quarterback Jeff Sims caused his fair share of headaches.
It was one of those situations where the game ended and I was sort of stunned to realize the Knights only gave up 21 points. 21? It felt like 50 while watching. But that’s what this defense is all about.
Sure, the Yellow Jackets were driving at various times in the game. But the Knights came up big where it mattered, blocking a field goal, forcing fumbles, snatching picks. All in all, UCF forced five turnovers and Georgia Tech’s final three drives ended in a turnover on downs, an interception and a fumble.
UCF’s defense locked down when it had to and that sure seems like something we can count on happening this year. Even if there will be some frustrating moments along the way.
4. What I wouldn’t give for UCF to join the ACC. Yes, I get that no Power Five invite is a guarantee and that the Knights would happily take what they can get, but Saturday showed why the ACC is this school’s true home.
Just from the Twitter fights alone, Georgia Tech felt like a natural rival. And it was a short enough drive for many UCF fans to make the trip. It opened my eyes to the fact that the ACC is just packed with teams that the Knights should be playing every year.
We all know that when (if?) the Power Five invite comes, it’ll be from the Big 12. They only have 10 teams, would love to add an Orlando-sized market and dip their toe into that fertile Florida recruiting ground.
But a home slate of Miami, FSU, Virginia Tech and Syracuse just fits so much better than one of Baylor, Kansas, TCU and Kansas State. Oh well.
5. Speaking of schedules, I feel a lot better about five road games now. In the age of COVID, we were all just happy to see UCF playing any kind of season. But five games on the road compared to four at home was a point of concern, especially considering that the Knights were just 3-3 away from the Bounce House last season.
But Gabriel and Co. largely put that to rest on Saturday. I just don’t see the same performance drop-offs for him on the road this year and that really was half the battle. Memphis will be tricky, but if the road Knights can hang 49 on a Power Five team, I’m feeling good about their chances against the likes of South Florida and Houston.
6. Georgia Tech may not feel like a big win now, but just wait. That team is obviously trending in the right direction. Geoff Collins has more than proven himself as a solid coach and there are some really intriguing pieces on that young offense, obviously highlighted by Sims.
I don’t expect the Yellow Jackets to be anywhere near the top of the ACC, but they absolutely could surprise some folks as the season goes on. All it takes is one game where Sims is really clicking for a potential upset to pan out. Let’s not forget there was a point in time where UCF was only up by seven late in the game.
Give this team some time to grow. That win is going to age like wine.
Three thoughts on what’s next for UCF
1. This East Carolina game could wreck UCF’s Playoff chances. I’m serious. This is a team that has gone 18-42 since 2015. The Pirates are a joke nationally, just another hapless G5 team and the expectation is for the Knights to rip them to shreds.
The problem? They might actually be kind of good. The defense won’t be a problem for UCF. It was pretty weak last year and now a lot of starters are gone. But the offense? That’s a problem.
Quarterback Holton Ahlers is back for his junior year and he showed what an explosive player he could be last season. He has a solid enough array of weapons around him that the Pirates should be able to put up the points this year. That’s a problem.
Am I actually worried about a UCF loss? Not really, no. I don’t see how a defense that allowed more than 33 points per game last season and objectively got worse is going to slow down these Knights. But this could absolutely become a shootout.
And let me tell you right now: UCF beating a no-name Group of Five team by 56-35 or something along those lines is going to hurt. It will be 2017 and 2018 all over again, where the Playoff Committee heaps praise onto the Knights’ offense but points out an iffy defensive result or two to justify keeping them down in the rankings.
Hopefully I’m wrong on this and UCF’s defense lives up to hype of the offseason. But don’t be surprised when this game is thrown back in the Knights’ faces in December.
2. This next month or so of football could be the most critical in AAC history. It would’ve been nice if the American got a full season to showcase its criminally underrated football product. But that window is shutting fast with the Big Ten due back in a month and the Pac 12 likely following.
So now is the time. We’ve got a month left here where the AAC is going to still be in primetime. Hell, UCF-ECU is airing on ABC. The conference absolutely has to capitalize.
What does that look like? First off, the Big Three need to be dominant. Memphis, UCF and Cincinnati need to come out of the next month unscathed (except against each other) and look unstoppable while doing so. As for everyone else? They need to have fun.
Apart from just fielding better teams, the AAC stands out from the rest of the mid-majors because it has such a fun, offense-driven style of play. Anyone outside the top three needs to spend the next month playing fun, open games against each other and dominating non-conference foes. And that’s what has happened so far.
UCF, Memphis and Cincy are rolling. SMU is dropping 65 points on Conference USA teams. Tulsa’s taking Top 15 teams to the wire. Tulane and Navy are battling it out in a fun come-back game that grabbed plenty of headlines. Now we just need this to maintain. Everyone is watching the AAC right now, so let’s give them a fun October and maybe, just maybe, the conference will stick in their minds a little bit.
3. On a UCF note, I very badly want to believe this is an undefeated season. It just feels like it is. Now, I know going undefeated is absurdly difficult (even if the Knights made it look like a cake walk for two straight years) but this team has all the prerequisites. A star quarterback surrounded by a bevy of offensive talent. A defense that seems like it could ride the “bend-don’t-break” mindset to elite status. A schedule that sets up nicely with only one big opponent on the road. And, of course, the national brand to make that undefeated season matter.
The ingredients are all there. We like to talk about last season as a “down year” but UCF was seven points away from a perfect record. Is this year’s squad at least seven points better than 2019? It sure seems that way.