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 13 (Nov. 23, Time and TV TBA): at South Florida Bulls
Last Year: 10-2 (6-2 American)
Last Meeting: UCF 49, USF 42 (Nov. 24, 2017)
All-time series: USF leads 6-3
After the thriller that was the 2017 War on I-4 matchup, UCF once again closes out its season with USF South Florida on Black Friday. This year’s meeting will unfold at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and will more than likely decide the AAC East for the second straight year. The Bulls are trying to avoid making 2018 a transition year, but it will be tough considering the talent they have to replace.
The biggest question heading into this fall is how in the world the program will replace its best player ever. Quinton Flowers, who totaled 11,796 yards and 112 touchdowns in his career, is now gone. Flowers alone almost willed South Florida to a win over UCF last year, putting up 605 total yards and five touchdowns in the 49-42 loss. Replacing his overall production just doesn’t seem possible, but the Bulls have to figure something out.
Coach Charlie Strong finally named a starting quarterback this past week after a long three-man battle that lasted throughout the summer. Blake Barnett, a former five-star prospect who spent time at both Alabama and Arizona State, will start the season opener against Elon. However, it’s likely that Brett Kean and Chris Oladokun will also play, so there’s no telling who will start by the regular season finale.
Flowers isn’t the only big playmaker that Strong has to replace. D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice, the team’s top two running backs from last year, are also gone. Jordan Cronkrite, a former Florida Gator, will presumably get a lot of carries. Elijah Mack, Trevon Sands and a couple of others are also in the mix.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, last year’s leading receiver, was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by Green Bay. Even still, there’s talent left at the position. Senior Tyre McCants, who torched UCF for 227 yards and a touchdown last November, is back to lead the way. Junior Darnell Salomon, who had 139 yards and a touchdown of his own in that game against the Knights, also returns. There’s depth behind McCants and Salomon, while tight ends Mitchell Wilcox and Jacob Mathis (an Ole Miss transfer) should also be reliable pass-catchers.
There are quite a few moving parts on the offensive line, but having Marcus Norman, a second team all-conference pick last year, back at right tackle will be a help. Considering the uncertainty up front heading into the year, the offensive line may have a different look by the time the War on I-4 rolls around.
The Bulls also have to replace defensive tackles Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, along with defensive end Mike Love. Greg Reaves (14 tackles for loss in 2017) is the only returner among the front four. The challenge of replacing the other three guys cannot be overstated, especially in an offense-driven league like the AAC. There are undoubtedly a few guys that the South Florida coaching staff can feel good about, but there’s no easy fix for missing Senat, Hector and Love.
Auggie Sanchez, the program’s all-time leader in tackles, is another stud who moved on after 2017. That itself is another major loss in a long list of them. Nico Sawtelle, who tallied 54 tackles last season, will take over as the leading linebacker. Khalid McGee, who moved to linebacker from safety, should also be a solid force for the Bulls.
Safety Devin Abraham and cornerback Deatrick Nichols are missing from the secondary, but guys like Mazzi Wilkins and Ronnie Hoggins are expected to continue leading a deep group. There doesn’t appear to be a shortage of talent for South Florida in the secondary.
Even the special teams group didn’t escape turnover. The team no longer has Emilio Nadelman, who had occupied the kicker position since 2015. There are several guys competing for that job, including Trent Schneider, who is also the new punter.
The Bulls, obviously, have a lot of replacements to make. That will be a tough task. It’s not just the fact that they have to make replacements. The high level of talent that they saw graduate and/or move on after 2017 was significant. Fortunately for the program, Strong has recruited pretty well and there’s a lot to work with on the roster.
Having a manageable schedule early in the season will help them find their footing. It’s a real possibility that they could start 6-1 or even 7-0, if everything comes together fast. The back half of the schedule will be a challenge, but the Bulls should still contend for the division title.
Final Thoughts: For UCF, there’s no such thing as a given against its I-4 rival. Even in their best years, the Knights have gotten a fight from the Bulls. It will be no different this year, even if South Florida is rebuilding or re-tooling. By the final game of the regular season, Charlie Strong’s team could be clicking. Plus, anything goes in a rivalry game. Having this game at home might be another help for the Bulls, but there isn’t enough going for them right now to pick them over the Knights.