The 2017 UCF football season kicks off in just a couple weeks. Coach Scott Frost came to Orlando last season and helped the Knights to a six-win improvement, which means expectations will be even higher this year. In this opponent preview series, we’ll be breaking down each team that UCF will see this fall.
Week 13 (Nov. 24, Time TBA, ESPN/ABC Networks): vs. USF Bulls
Last Year: 11-2 (7-1 American)
Last Meeting: USF 48, UCF 31 (Nov. 26, 2016)
All-time series: USF leads 6-2
To cap off the 2017 regular season, UCF will host I-4 rival USF on Black Friday. The Bulls were picked to win the AAC East in the preseason poll, while the Knights were picked to finish second. After going 10-2 in the regular season last year, USF watched head coach Willie Taggart leave for Oregon. The team regrouped and won its bowl game, then hired former Louisville and Texas coach Charlie Strong to take over the reins. With a loaded roster, expectations for Strong and the program are at an all-time high. Many that support the green and gold expect nothing less than a conference championship and a New Year’s bowl berth.
USF averaged 43.8 points per game last year, good for fourth in the nation. Having one of the country’s most dynamic quarterbacks certainly helped. Senior Quinton Flowers is a sleeper Heisman candidate heading into this year, and for good reason. In 2016, he totaled 4,342 yards and 42 touchdowns. Running back Marlon Mack (1,187 yards and 15 touchdowns) and wide receiver Rodney Adams (822 yards and five touchdowns) are both gone to the NFL, which are tough hits. However, Flowers will have plenty of help around him.
Senior running backs D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice will step in to replace Mack. Senior Marquez Valdes-Scantling and junior Tyre McCants combined for 799 yards and nine touchdowns last year, so they’ll be a solid one and two on the outside. Two of the Bulls’ all-AAC linemen are gone too, so there are some holes to fill up front in addition. Regardless of who left, USF should still be one of the top offenses in the AAC, if not in the country.
Where the Bulls struggled last year was on the defensive side of the ball though. They allowed an average of 31.6 points per game, but the offense was good enough to cover up for that. USF didn’t lose a lot from last year’s group. Senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez (120 tackles, six sacks in 2016) will lead the way this year. Senior defensive tackle Bruce Hector will also be a big help up front after putting up six sacks last year. Sanchez and Hector will provide a much-needed pass rush, while senior cornerback Deatrick Nichols (team-high four interceptions last year) will anchor the secondary along with a pair of junior safeties. The Bulls may not turn the entire defense around in one year, but they surely have the pieces in place to improve and provide a little more breathing room for the offense.
USF is the talk of the AAC right now, which is well-deserved. The schedule for the preseason conference favorites is not the toughest, especially in non-conference play. ESPN FPI’s win predictability favors them in all 12 of their games this year. Something could obviously go wrong, but an undefeated season is not unthinkable. Regardless, USF seems to have the best chance at representing the group of five conferences in a New Year’s bowl game.
Final Thoughts: Rivalry week is one of the craziest weeks of the season. Anything can happen, which is one of the reasons why this War on I-4 matchup will likely be the toughest of the year for USF. The series history doesn’t favor UCF, but home-field advantage could be a big help. The Knights should keep it close, but the Bulls might be too tough to overcome.