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 3 (Sept. 15, Noon, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU): at North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Year: 3-9 (1-7 ACC)
Last Meeting: No previous meetings
All-time series: 0-0
UCF will play North Carolina for the first time ever when it travels up to Chapel Hill in week three. This matchup serves as the front end of a home-and-home series between the Knights and Tar Heels, with their meeting in Orlando set for the 2020 season. North Carolina fell to a rough 3-9 record in 2017 but isn’t far removed from a two-year stretch in 2015 and 2016 when it complied a 19-8 record (highlighted by an 11-3 mark in 2015). Larry Fedora, who has led the program since 2012, is entering a crucial season this fall.
Offensively, the Tar Heels enter 2018 with a need for consistency. In their first three games last year, they scored 30, 35 and 53 points. Had the defense been any good, they could’ve ended up 2-1 or even 3-0 in those games. Instead, they started 1-2 before entering a slow period for the offense. The unit failed to score 20 points for six straight games, leading to six straight losses. Overall, the team finished the season averaging 26 points and 370 yards per game.
The late-season resurgence from the offense was promising, but there remains a lack of clarity at the quarterback position. Nathan Elliott, who officially took over in the near-upset of Miami in late October, seemed to find some success in the final three games of the season. In wins over Pittsburgh and Western Carolina, he totaled 475 passing yards and six touchdowns to zero interceptions. The turnovers came back a little bit in the season-closing loss to North Carolina State, but he still gave the Tar Heels a chance with 278 passing yards and two scores. Heading into the fall, he will be competing with Chazz Surratt. Surratt started seven games in 2017, throwing for 1,342 yards and eight touchdowns to three interceptions. He also added 210 yards and five scores on the ground, but still finished with a 1-6 record as the starter.
Whoever wins the job will have last year’s leading receiver, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, back. The team does have to replace the next two top receivers and four offensive linemen. The lack of proven receivers will be a challenge for Elliott or Surratt, while the lack of experience up front could spell trouble for leading backs Jordon Brown (613 yards and four touchdowns in 2017) and Michael Carter (558 yards and eight touchdowns).
The North Carolina defense was a mess last year, which will almost always lead to trouble in the ACC. The group allowed 31 points and 436 yards per game, splitting those yards pretty evenly between struggles through the air and on the ground. Eight starters from last year’s defense return in 2018, which could help. Of course, that only helps if experience is seen as an inherent positive. If experience wasn’t the issue last year, then the Tar Heels have a lot to figure out on defense this year. The entire front seven is back, but the biggest loss could be at cornerback with M.J. Stewart getting drafted in the second round by Tampa Bay.
Freeman Jones is back for his second year as North Carolina’s kicker. He went just nine-for-14 on field goals last year but finished with a solid 37-for-38 mark on extra points. Tom Sheldon should return to keep the punting job after averaging 45.8 yards per kick in 2017 with a long of 66 yards. Ratliff-Williams, the team’s leading receiver, will once again be dangerous in the kick return game.
Overall, the Tar Heels should be better this year. If things click, they could be a nice bet to make it back to a bowl game. There doesn’t seem to be quite enough there for any sort of run to the top of the ACC, but with some nice pieces in place, Fedora’s squad should be able to avoid a finish as bad as last year’s. The offense will once again be the key, as another stretch similar to last year’s midseason drought would mean disaster for North Carolina.
Final Thoughts: Matchups with Power Five opponents are always important for UCF. With this one coming on the road, there’s some added pressure. The Knights are the better team, one with far fewer questions to answer than the Tar Heels. This will be the biggest test for Josh Heupel to date, as it could be a competitive game. Even still, UCF should win without too much of a scare. Oddly enough, ESPN FPI gives the Knights just a 36.4 percent chance to win this one. Tar Heel Blog, North Carolina’s SB Nation site, predicted a 55-37 UCF win. I’m not sure what ESPN’s system sees in this game that no one else does.
Win Probability: 75%