Soon enough, UCF Football will kick off its 2018 season. Last year, the Knights finished 13-0, won the AAC, beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and claimed a National Championship. Now, a new coaching staff led by Josh Heupel will try to guide a talented roster to another big year. Every Saturday until the season starts, we’ll be breaking down a different opponent on UCF’s schedule.
Week 7 (Oct. 13, Time and TV TBA): at Memphis Tigers
Last Year: 10-3 (7-1 American)
Last Meeting: UCF 62, Memphis 55 /2OT (AAC Championship Game—Dec. 2, 2017)
All-time series: UCF leads 11-1
UCF’s undefeated run in 2017 led to a National Championship claim that included coaching bonuses, rings, signage and a whole lot of complaints from the rest of the country. But none of that would have ever unfolded if the Knights hadn’t managed to escape the first Saturday in December with an unblemished record. Memphis, a team that UCF had beaten by 27 points early in the season, was one defensive stop away from leaving Orlando as conference champions. There would have been no Peach Bowl for the Knights and no National Championship claim.
The Tigers surely haven’t forgotten the feeling from after that double-overtime loss in the AAC Championship Game. They will get their crack at some revenge in the second week of October when they host UCF in a title game rematch. Coach Mike Norvell, despite receiving interest from other schools, decided to return to Memphis this year. He has an 18-8 record in two years with the Tigers, who head into 2018 looking to reload rather than rebuild.
Last year, Norvell would have had the No. 1 scoring offense in the conference—and the nation—if it weren’t for UCF. The Tigers were second in points per game with 45.5, which left them behind only the Knights (48.2). There might be some concerns about the team’s ability to replicate that success this year, with quarterback Riley Ferguson (4,257 passing yards, 38 touchdowns in 2017) and Anthony Miller (1,462 receiving yards, 18 touchdowns) gone. However, Norvell will surely be expecting guys to step up in the same way Ferguson and Miller did when quarterback Paxton Lynch was drafted in the first round after the 2015 season.
Sophomore David Moore and graduate transfer Brady White, who came from Arizona State, are battling it out for Ferguson’s spot. Moore is the only returning player that completed a pass last season, but White had some experience with the Sun Devils in 2016. Not only is Miller, a 2017 All-American, gone, but so is Phil Mayhue, who finished last year as the wide receiver with the second-most yards. Domante Coxie posted 15.4 yards per catch last year, making him someone to watch in the race to replace Miller. Whoever wins the quarterback job will be relying heavily on Coxie, a couple of junior receivers and two solid tight ends in Joey Magnifico and Sean Dykes.
Where the Tigers do return a lot of production is in the backfield and along the offensive line. Four of the line’s 2017 starters are back this year to block for Darrell Henderson (1,154 rushing yards, nine touchdowns), Patrick Taylor Jr. (866 yards, 13 scores) and Tony Pollard (230 and two). The trio of running backs combined to have the nation’s 12th-highest yards per carry mark last year. All three are reliable pass-catchers as well, but Pollard was the most productive in that category last year.
Defensively, the Tigers were young last year. It showed, as they allowed 32.5 points and 466.2 yards per game. Both of those marks landed them in the 100s in scoring and total defense. But there could be some improvement this year. The defensive line is only missing one of its top performers from a year ago, while most of the linebackers return as well. The biggest loss on the defense came when Genard Avery was drafted in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft. He racked up 80 tackles (22 for loss) and 8 ½ sacks last year, capping off a solid run in which he started every game over his final two seasons.
Three of the starters in the secondary return this year. T.J. Carter is the top returner after a nice 2017 season that included 69 tackles and a team-high five interceptions. Having a seasoned group in the defensive backfield will help Memphis, especially with some pass-happy teams and prolific quarterbacks in the AAC. The defense ranked 121st against the pass last year, so there is a ton of room to improve with more experience coming back this year.
Pollard is the face of Memphis’ special teams unit after 2017 saw him post an average of 40.1 yards per return, which was tops in the country. UCF fans probably remember Riley Patterson for his missed field goal late in the fourth quarter of the AAC Championship Game, which was indicative of his struggles last year. He made just two of his six attempts from over 40 yards out, although he did have success on shorter kicks.
The Tigers will more than likely be a popular pick to repeat as AAC West champions in 2018. An improved Houston team could challenge them, as could a team like Navy. But overall, there’s enough of a track record from recent years to believe that Memphis can remain one of the better teams in the conference. Norvell staying was big for the program and if he can keep his team near the top of the conference this year, it will surely keep some energy in the fan base.
Final Thoughts: The Knights and Tigers met twice last year. That could conceivably happen again this year. But as far as the first meeting goes, UCF might have its hands full. That Memphis backfield will be dangerous, which should help whoever wins the quarterback job. The defense might be the problem for the Tigers, though, considering there’s no guarantee that a little more experience will translate to more success. UCF’s last trip to Memphis (a 24-17 win in 2013) almost ended in disaster, but two late touchdowns allowed the team to stay on the path to the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights might get another scare in this one, but they should be able to win their 12th straight against the Tigers.
Win Probability: 60%