2017 was a historic year for UCF Football, one that included a 12-0 record, an AAC Championship and a berth in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. The No. 12 Knights are in the process of preparing for the No. 7 Auburn Tigers, their opponent for the New Year’s Day bowl game.
As the season nears its end, it’s fun to reflect on the year that was. It was an interesting fall for UCF, with inconveniences due to Hurricane Irma leading to 11 consecutive game weeks. Hurricane issues, disrespect from the playoff committee and coaching rumors weren’t enough to keep the Knights from putting together a season for the ages.
Most Valuable Player
5. Mike Hughes, defensive back/return specialist: For someone that didn’t join the Knights until late in fall camp, Hughes made a pretty remarkable impact on the 2017 season. The former North Carolina Tar Heel burst onto the scene in a big way. He led the UCF secondary all year long, tying for the team lead in interceptions with four.
However, where his biggest impact was felt was in the return game. He was second team all-AAC as a return specialist for a reason, as he finished with three touchdowns, a kickoff return average of 34.1 yards and a punt return average of 17.9 yards. His biggest moment of the season, as many will remember for a long time, was a 95-yard kick return for a touchdown to put UCF on top of rival USF with 1:28 left in the game.
4. Adrian Killins, running back: The UCF backfield took a huge hit when starter Jawon Hamilton went down in the season’s second game. Little did the Knights know, Killins was ready for a bigger role. After receiving scattered carries throughout his 2016 freshman campaign, he became a featured back as a sophomore. With more carries, he showed that he can be more than just a guy with world-class speed. Killins’ work between the tackles, as well as his shiftiness in space, improved this year and made him into a key cog in the nation’s No. 1 offense.
In 12 games, the Daytona Beach native ran for 762 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. His longest run of the year was a 96-yard touchdown against Memphis on Sept. 30. The run gave UCF a huge swing of momentum in what was one of their most impressive wins of the season. His emergence led to a first team all-conference spot.
3. Shaquem Griffin, linebacker: As the reigning AAC defensive player of the year, Griffin was already the defense’s leader heading into the season. He didn’t disappoint, leading an impressive year from the Knights’ linebackers. His 62 tackles ranked third on the team and he led the way in sacks with 5 ½.
The redshirt senior displayed leadership all year long and showed off a tendency for clutch plays at crucial times. When UCF needed a big play, Griffin was there for a sack, a forced fumble or both. He was someone that opposing quarterbacks had to keep tabs on at all times. Griffin finished the season with nine quarterback hurries, an interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The unquestioned face of the team was a unanimous first team all-conference selection.
2. Tre’Quan Smith, wide receiver: The re-emergence of an effective passing game had a lot to do with a monster year from Smith. His success wasn’t a surprise by any stretch, as he was coming off of two solid seasons. This year was another step forward, as he provided his quarterback with a reliable No. 1 receiver. Despite only being a redshirt junior, it would be no surprise to see the Delray Beach product make the leap to the NFL Draft.
In 12 contests, Smith had four 100-yard games. He finished the year with 54 catches for 1,082 yards and 13 touchdowns. The second team all-AAC receiver now ranks near the top of multiple categories in the program’s record book. He is second in 100-yard receiving games (11), third in career touchdown catches (22), third in career receiving yards (2,659) and seventh in receptions (163).
1. McKenzie Milton, quarterback: While the four other guys on this list certainly did their part in getting UCF to the top, there is no question that Milton was the team’s most valuable player this season. His improvement brought along the transformation of the offense into the top unit in the entire country. The sophomore was named the conference’s offensive player of the year, becoming the third player in program history to win a conference offensive player of the year award. He joined UCF legends Kevin Smith and Blake Bortles. He also finished eighth on the Heisman Trophy ballot.
Milton totaled 3,795 passing yards and 35 touchdown passes while completing 69 percent of his passes. On the ground, he ran for 497 yards and seven touchdowns, proving to be a true dual-threat quarterback. He had seven 300-yard passing games and five games of 50-plus rushing yards. The turnaround from the Hawaii native was the top reason for UCF’s six-win improvement.
Also worth mentioning: Wide receiver Dredrick Snelson emerged as a big-time No. 2 receiver as a sophomore. He caught 42 passes for 656 yards and seven touchdowns. With Smith’s potential departure for the NFL, Snelson is likely the leading candidate to be Milton’s top target in 2018.
3. The defense in the final half of the season: In 2016, the Knights were carried to six wins by their defense. The unit got out to a solid start in 2017, but fell apart over the final six games. In the first six games, the Knights allowed an average of 17.5 points per game. Over the final six, they gave up 32.8 points per game.
In the final two games of the season, the defense gave up 42 and 55 points, nearly costing the team its perfect season and New Year’s Six bowl berth. The secondary was brand new heading into 2017 and the defensive line struggled to get after the quarterback at times, leading to some trouble. Luckily, the offense was able to bail UCF out week after week.
2. Jawon Hamilton, running back: By no fault of his own, Hamilton was a disappointment this year. He ran for 495 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman in 2016 and was set for a starting role this year. The sophomore’s season ended unfortunately early, as he suffered a season-ending injury in the team’s second game of the season. Before the injury, he had 51 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Upon his return in 2018, he should figure back into the Knights’ plans. Even still, he missed out on a perfect season for UCF and will have to earn his spot back after a breakout year from Adrian Killins and freshman Otis Anderson.
1. Scott Frost’s departure: The biggest disappointment for the Knights in 2017 wasn’t anything that happened on the field. Instead, it was the departure of their coach just hours after the conference championship game on Dec. 2. As UCF built on its success week after week, Frost’s alma mater of Nebraska continued to decline. Of course, that led to more and more rumors that the Nebraska native would return to be the program’s savior.
There was a time where there seemed to be some uncertainty about Frost’s departure. It seemed like there was at least a possibility that the second-year coach would stay in Orlando. However, as the season went on, the rumors got louder and louder. By the time the AAC title game came around, his departure was inevitable. UCF looks to be in good hands with new coach Josh Heupel, but Frost leaving after just two seasons still came as a disappointment for the Knights.
Also worth mentioning: Running back Taj McGowan was an early surprise for the UCF offense before disappearing in the middle of the season. That obviously can’t be blamed on the player himself, as his number stopped being called following a productive start to the season. Considering some of the Knights’ struggles with short-yardage situations, McGowan’s absence was puzzling.
Most Pleasant Surprise
3. Gabe Davis, wide receiver: UCF was a young team and it got plenty of production from true freshmen. One of those was Davis, who caught 25 passes for 353 yards and four touchdowns. With so much talent at receiver, it would have been easy for a freshman like him to get lost in the shuffle in year one. Instead, he instantly made a good impression on his coaches. Coming out of camp and heading into the season, coaches raved about his maturity and potential.
The potential paid off for Davis, who should figure heavily into the Knights’ plans in 2018. Especially with the potential departures of Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins, UCF will need multiple guys to step into a larger role. As a sophomore, Davis could be a top two or three receiver.
2. Pat Jasinski, linebacker: Despite some inconsistencies as a defense overall, UCF got some consistency out of Jasinski. The junior linebacker led the Knights in tackles with 96 (47 solo) and racked up eight tackles for loss. With Shaquem Griffin and redshirt senior Chequan Burkett coming back as proven entities, Jasinski stepped up and gave the middle of UCF’s defense a boost.
With Jasinski returning next year for his senior season, he should be one of the leaders for new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. He showed a knack for making big plays in 2017, playing a part in three turnovers (one interception, a forced fumble and a recovery). The Georgia product was an underrated asset for the Knights on defense all year long, but he shouldn’t be overlooked heading into next year.
1. Otis Anderson, running back/wide receiver: Without a doubt, Anderson was the most pleasant surprise for UCF this year. Production from freshmen was needed for the Knights to take the next step on offense. A lot of that help came from the three-star out of Jacksonville. His play picked up about halfway through the season, making him a key player down the stretch. He was playing well out of the slot receiver position before getting some carries as a running back. He made the most of those carries, which led to more as the season progressed.
Overall, Anderson rushed for 456 yards and four touchdowns on 58 attempts. In the passing game, he caught 28 passes for 334 yards and two scores. He stepped up when the Knights needed him most, running for 113 yards and a touchdown in UCF’s conference championship win over Memphis.
Also worth mentioning: Milton himself can be considered a pleasant surprise, as the stability of his job as the starter was questioned heading into the year. The sophomore quickly silenced those questions and emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference—and the nation.
No. 12 UCF takes on No. 7 Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Jan. 1. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m.