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 10 (Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m., ESPN): vs. Temple Owls
Last Year: 7-6 (4-4 American)
Last Meeting: UCF 45, Temple 19 (Nov. 18, 2017)
All-time series: UCF leads 3-2
UCF starts the season’s final stretch in prime-time action on Nov. 1 when it hosts Temple. The matchup will be the first of three straight home games at Spectrum Stadium, but it will be a tough one. 2017 was a transition year for the Owls, but the 2018 team promises to return the program to its previous status as a serious AAC contender. Considering the roster turnover at USF, a fair argument could be made for Temple being the Knights’ biggest threat in the East Division.
The 2017 Owls had a 3-5 record through eight games, but managed to end the season by winning four of their final five games. That lone loss down the stretch came to the Knights, but quarterback Frank Nutile came on strong enough in November to lock up the starting job for his senior year in 2018. Overall, Nutile threw for 1,520 yards and 12 touchdowns to six interceptions after taking over as the starter on Oct. 21. His four-touchdown game against Navy showed Temple fans that they finally had their guy at quarterback after Logan Marchi struggled his way through the first half of the season.
Nutile found his groove near the end of the season with a wealth of solid receiving options, but two of those are now gone heading into 2018. Adonis Jennings (742 yards, seven touchdowns in 2017) and Keith Kirkwood (671 yards, seven scores) have moved on, but Isaiah Wright (668 yards, four touchdowns) is back after leading the team in receptions last season. Losing Jennings and Kirkwood is tough, but Ventell Bryant, who was the leading pass-catcher two years ago, will get a chance to rebound after hauling in just 29 catches for 280 yards in 10 games last year. Plus, coach Geoff Collins brought in a solid recruiting class that featured several three-star receiving options.
Last year’s backfield struggled behind a shaky offensive line, but there is reason to believe the run game could come back stronger this fall. Six offensive linemen who saw starting time last year will return, while the backfield consists of a few guys who have gotten significant carries in the past. Leading rusher David Hood (638 yards, five touchdowns) is back, as is Ryquell Armstead (604 yards, five touchdowns). There should be depth behind those two as well, with Tyliek Raynor and Jager Gardner returning from injury. If the guys up front can figure out how to gel into a consistent force, the running back group should be more than productive.
After allowing just 18.4 points per game in 2016, the Temple defense took a moderate step back in 2017 by giving up 25.8 per game. The pass defense was a strength last year, but there are some big losses to cover up. The team’s top two sack leaders, defensive ends Sharif Finch and Jacob Martins, are no longer around. Neither is defensive tackle Julian Taylor, whose 10 tackles for loss tied him for fourth-most on the team. Defensive end Quincy Roche does return after posting seven sacks in his debut season last year, but considering its own losses, the secondary is going to need pass rush from more than just him. Luckily, there seems to be plenty of talent up front in order to help out a rebuilt defensive backfield.
The Owls have to replace cornerbacks Artrel Foster (26 tackles, one pass breakup, one fumble recovery) and Mike Jones (one interception, seven pass breakups) on the outside. At the safety position, Sean Chandler is gone after finishing last year with 79 tackles (third on the team) and three interceptions. Rock Ya-Sin, a graduate transfer from Presbyterian, should assume one of the outside corner roles after starting 23 games in three seasons with the Blue Hose. There are quite a few other veterans that could step up at both corner and safety, so there doesn’t seem to be too much concern about the Owls maintaining a solid pass defense in 2018.
Shaun Bradley, the team’s leading tackler from last year, returns to lead at linebacker. But he isn’t the only asset at the position, as most of the group returns after putting together some solid numbers a year ago.
Kicker Aaron Boumerhi returns after an average 2017 season in which he connected on 15 of his 23 field goal attempts. Three of those misses came from the 40-49-yard range, while two more were from 50-plus. Punter Alex Starzyk needs to be replaced, though he wasn’t overly effective in 2017.
There appears to be a lot to like about Temple in 2018, especially if Nutile continues to develop into one of the league’s better quarterbacks. How quickly he comes together with some emerging receivers, as well as the progress of the backfield, will have a huge impact on how the Owls perform in 2018. The defense, despite some significant losses, will more than likely be a strong point again this year.
A couple of non-conference road games with Maryland and Boston College, plus a conference clash at Navy, stick out in the first seven games of Temple’s schedule. The Owls should still be in good position as far as conference contention goes when they head to Orlando to start November. However, that is the start of a tough stretch that continues with a road game at Houston and a home contest with USF. Temple might not be the best bet to return to the AAC Championship Game quite yet, but the program at least seems to be headed back toward the conversation.
Final Thoughts: The start of a tough stretch for Temple happens to also be the start of one for UCF. Sure, it’s the first of three straight home games for the Knights, but the game is followed by matchups with Navy, Cincinnati (who should be more competitive this year) and USF. Even still, UCF has fewer questions than Temple. The run that the Owls went on at the end of last year didn’t faze the Knights even a little bit, as they rolled to a 26-point win on the road. This game could be close early, but UCF has home-field advantage and a fairly significant edge in talent. Both should catch up to Temple eventually.
Win Probability: 70%