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 2 (Sept. 8, 6:00 p.m., ESPN3): vs. South Carolina State Bulldogs
Last Year: 3-7 (2-6 MEAC)
Last Meeting: UCF 38, South Carolina State 0 (Sept. 3, 2016)
All-time series: UCF leads 2-0
The Knights make their official return to Spectrum Stadium in week two when they host South Carolina State. In an interesting coincidence, new UCF coach Josh Heupel will make his home debut against the same team that visited Orlando for Scott Frost’s first game back in 2016.
The Bulldogs finished near the bottom of the FCS’ Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last year, but Buddy Pough enters his 17th season in Orangeburg needing nine wins to become the program’s all-time winningest coach. Reaching those nine victories is an extremely ambitious goal for this year, but his team does have solid experience coming back.
Offensively, South Carolina State returns eight starters from last year’s squad. Last year’s primary quarterback, Dewann Ford Jr., is back and could be the guy that Pough turns to as the offense’s signal-caller once again. He struggled last year though, completing just 50 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 10 games. The offense averaged 20 points and just 309 yards per game last year. The unit will need to find some consistency this fall, which could start up front with the offensive line. Robbie Stephenson, who was an All-MEAC selection last year, will be back to anchor that effort.
There are questions on defense for the Bulldogs, but one stands alone as the biggest. How can they replace two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year Darius Leonard? The star linebacker was selected early in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft after spending his college career as the leader of South Carolina State’s defense. With him and Dayshawn Taylor gone, the team needs Cornelius Walker and Chad Gilchrest to step up at the linebacker position. There is plenty of experience back on the defensive line to help the secondary, which lost third-leading tackler Jason Baxter.
Last year’s kicker, Tyler Scandrett, graduated after converting on 11 of his 15 field goal attempts in his senior year. The Bulldogs will have to replace him, but punter Cliff Benjamin Jr. should be back after putting together a 38.2 yards per punt average last year. He had 12 kicks downed inside the 20 and seven go for 50-plus yards.
The Bulldogs haven’t posted a winning record since 2015, though they managed to look competitive last year despite their final record. Five of their seven losses came by one possession and all three wins came by three possessions or more. There are a lot of questions for them to answer this year, with an unproven offense and some serious replacements to make on defense. Can they pull off a strong finish in the MEAC? Maybe. But it will take some significant steps forward to do so.
Final Thoughts: UCF should put South Carolina State away pretty early. The talent gap is obvious and the Knights will be dialed in for their first official appearance in the Bounce House since winning a double-overtime thriller in the AAC Championship Game last December. Frost’s UCF debut was a 38-0 blowout of South Carolina State, and that team was far from where it is now. Heupel’s Spectrum Stadium debut should be even more lopsided.
Win Probability: 99%