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 5 (Sept. 29, Time and TV TBA): vs. Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Year: 5-7 (3-5 ACC)
Last Meeting: Pittsburgh 52, UCF 7 (Oct. 13, 2006)
All-time series: Pittsburgh leads 1-0
UCF closes out non-conference play in week five when it hosts Pittsburgh. The meeting will be the front half of a home-and-home series that will be capped off in 2019 with a game at Heinz Field. In the last two seasons, the Panthers have managed to pull off upsets over top-five teams. First, it was a 43-42 win at Clemson in 2016, which ended up being the Tigers’ only loss on their way to the College Football Playoff National Championship. In 2017, it was a 24-14 season-closing win against No. 2 Miami that dashed the Hurricanes’ playoff hopes.
As thrilling as those upsets might have been for the Panthers, they are hoping to be more than just a spoiler in 2018. Pat Narduzzi’s program placed second in the ACC Coastal division in back-to-back seasons before missing out on a bowl game in 2017. At 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the ACC, Pittsburgh failed to receive a bowl invite for the first time since 2007.
Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett is the face of the future for Pitt after he led the way in the upset victory over Miami last season. He threw for 193 yards and a touchdown in the game, but perhaps was even more dangerous with his legs as he ran for 60 yards and two scores. Despite only having one start under his belt, he’ll enter the fall as the unquestioned starting signal-caller.
There might be some pressure on Pickett considering the amount of hype surrounding him, but he’ll have some familiar faces coming back with him. Youth was a big factor in last season’s struggles, as the offense put up just 23.9 points per game (101st in FBS). The team gets its top two running backs from last year back, led by senior Darrin Hall (628 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017). The wide receiver position has plenty of returners, though the group wasn’t all that successful last year. Its leading receiver is gone, while redshirt senior Rafael Araujo-Lopez comes into 2018 as the returner with the most production (531 yards and two touchdowns).
The Panthers have three redshirt senior offensive linemen that will probably see significant playing time this fall. That has to help Pickett’s mindset as he enters his first year as the team’s No. 1 guy.
There are fewer question marks on the defensive side of the ball, especially with the group of linebackers that are returning. The starting trio includes two redshirt seniors and a redshirt junior. One of those redshirt seniors, Oluwaseun Idowu, had a team-high 94 tackles, five sacks and 11 ½ tackles for loss. The three starting linebackers make up the top three returning tacklers from last year’s team, as the No. 3 tackler from 2017, Jordan Whitehead, was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of this year’s draft.
The defensive line brings back most of its production from 2017 as well, with just one player gone that saw significant time a year ago. The secondary needs work, especially with Whitehead gone to the NFL. Replacing him over the top of the defense will be tough, with a few candidates expected to fight for the open safety spot alongside junior Damar Hamlin. At corner, there is less experience. Redshirt junior Dane Jackson is the only proven talent back at that position, which could make depth a big issue for the group.
Pitt would surely like more consistency out of kicker Alex Kessman this year after he missed eight field goals in 2017. The Panthers are having to replace an All-ACC punter and return man Quadree Henderson, who was an All-American in 2016.
Narduzzi has talent to work with in 2018. However, ESPN ranks the Panthers’ non-conference schedule as the toughest in the country. A matchup with Penn State at home, along with road games at UCF and Notre Dame will all be tough for Pitt, while the ACC slate is never easy. A season-closing stretch against Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Miami is going to be very challenging, especially for a young quarterback. There’s potential for the Panthers in 2018, but their schedule could prevent them from playing in a bowl game once again.
Final Thoughts: Facing Pitt, a team that has beaten the likes of Clemson and Miami in the last two years, is big for UCF. Having home-field advantage should help the Knights, especially with what should be a big crowd for Family Weekend. This could be an interesting game, but the determining factor will probably be the quarterback battle. Can Kenny Pickett outscore McKenzie Milton? As of now, it’s hard to see that happening. UCF should have the edge, but the outcome of this one is by no means a given.
Win Probability: 65%