The 63: Recapping UCF’s loss to Memphis and what’s next for the Knights

Photo courtesy of UCF Athletics Communications

Six thoughts on UCF’s loss to Memphis

1. Please stop calling for Josh Heupel’s job. Please. It’s embarrassing, it’s childish and, most importantly, it’s impossible. What exactly about the state of college athletics right now makes the anti-Heupel crowd think a coaching change is feasible?

Athletic departments are literally dying. It’s a minor miracle that UCF hasn’t cut sports yet as Danny White has made it clear that his department is struggling mightily to make ends meet. There is simply no way this school could afford to not only pay Heupel’s buyout to get rid of him but then also have enough cash to find a perfect hire to lead the Knights into the future.

Look, I am not defending Heupel’s track record here. UCF is now 14-6 in games without McKenzie Milton dating back to 2018. The Knights are just 2-6 in games decided by a single score under this current coaching regime. UCF is not meeting its potential and it’s OK to be upset about that.

But Heupel is not going anywhere and that should make everyone his biggest fan. Why are you rooting for your team’s coach to crash and burn? This has been a miserable three-week stretch for Knight Nation, probably the worst since 2015 given that there were no expectations in Scott Frost’s first season.

But let’s please, please, please try to keep a little perspective and not call for a complete overhaul every time the team doesn’t meet our sky-high demands.

2. There’s an alternate reality where Saturday’s result really wasn’t a bad loss. I mean, let’s be real. UCF has made a career of almost losing to Memphis these last few years. That lucky streak was going to run out eventually. Unfortunately, it came at a time when the Knights were desperately in need of a win and that makes everything look a whole lot worse.

I tweeted at halftime that the first two quarters were the best offensive half we’ve seen this year and I stand by that. Credit to both the offensive coaches and players for cleaning up pretty much everything that went wrong against Tulsa.

But that’s the thing. There’s Tulsa.

Let’s say the Knights had done what they were supposed to do against the Golden Hurricane. Let’s say that Johnny Richardson doesn’t fumble that kick return to open the second half, the offense cuts down on penalties, and the team goes on to win 40-27 or something along those lines.

Are we even mad about the Memphis result? UCF would be 3-1 overall, likely still ranked, and well within the race for an AAC Championship and New Year’s Six bid.

This loss only became a bad loss because of what happened in the game before. Seriously. Yes, I know the defense was horrible. But… the defense has been horrible against the Tigers for years. I didn’t see anyone calling for coaching changes after Memphis put up 55 points against UCF in 2017, or 41 points in 2018.

We always knew that the Tigers would triumph eventually. It’s only so awful because of what just happened against Tulsa.

3. And if you really think about it, this is UConn’s fault. UCF just played Memphis in 2017 and 2018. Back when the AAC had 12 teams and two divisions, the rotating schedule meant that the Knights and Tigers would not meet again until 2021.

But then UConn finally admitted that football doesn’t matter, and Mike Aresco decided that the best way to respond to that development was sending UCF on the road to Memphis a couple years early.

Why blame the defense when you can blame the conference?

4. OK but seriously, the defense. It’s gone from a point of concern to an absolute nightmare. I recognize that I was defending that side of the ball just two thoughts ago, and they do get somewhat of a pass since Memphis has been one of the most prolific offenses in the nation for half a decade now.

But the AAC is filled with teams that can light up the scoreboard. UCF is playing one of them this weekend. If the Knights are going to turn this season around, something has got to change there. The offense showed it can adapt and correct its errors, going from an abysmal, penalty-riddled performance against Tulsa to a record-setting day against Memphis. Maybe a magical turnaround is possible for Randy Shannon and Co.

5. Here’s a scary stat: UCF is now just 5-4 on the road since 2019. In the previous two years, the Knights were 9-0 away from home. I had quietly hoped the road woes were over for this team after wins at Georgia Tech and East Carolina to open the year, but it unfortunately has turned out that both those teams are actually just quite bad at football.

Unlike some of this fan base, I’m not expecting an endless streak of undefeated seasons. But I do believe that earning the New Year’s Six bid every three to four years is an attainable and realistic goal for a program of this stature. And you sure don’t get there with a .500 record on the road.

6. Here is my weekly Dillon Gabriel Appreciation Thought. Despite the final score, Gabriel put up one of the all-time great UCF quarterback performances on Saturday. And that’s saying something for a program that produced Daunte Culpepper, Blake Bortles and McKenzie Milton. Gabriel threw for 601 yards, five touchdowns and also picked up 49 yards and a score on the ground. That’s insane.

Through McKenzie Milton’s first four games in his breakout 2017 season, he amassed 1,165 passing yards and 13 touchdowns to two interceptions.

In his first four games of 2020, Gabriel has put up 1,756 passing yards and 14 touchdowns to two interceptions. I cannot overstate or say enough how remarkable it is that UCF had another Heisman-level quarterback on the roster within months of Milton’s injury.

Three thoughts on what’s next for UCF

1. There’s still a path to this being a good season. UCF’s next three games are everything. The Knights will face Tulane at home this Saturday, before heading out to Houston next week and returning to Orlando to play Temple the week after that.

Go 3-0 in those games, and the season is largely back on track. Yes, New Year’s Six and even AAC hopes are slim now. But if UCF comes out of that stretch unscathed, the Knights will be 5-2 when current powerhouse Cincinnati comes to town. The Bearcats will almost certainly be ranked, and possibly even undefeated.

If UCF manages to win that game, the Knights will at the very least have shown that they are still a top tier team in this conference. They’ll also then be sitting at 6-2 with a ranked win, which would likely be enough to get back into the Top 25. Then UCF is just an easy win against USF and a bowl appearance away from a fourth straight ranked season.

2. And while we’re in the positivity section of this article, an AAC Championship genuinely is not off the table. The current players at this point are Cincinnati, SMU and Memphis. UCF essentially needs two of those teams to finish with two losses.

In a normal two-division year, that would be unlikely. But in the current 11-team format, all of those guys are going to play each other. It wouldn’t necessarily be great for the conference’s national perspective, but those teams are absolutely capable of cannibalizing each other. Let’s take a closer look at how.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats play SMU and Memphis in back-to-back weeks. It will be tough to come out of that 2-0. As long as Cincy drops one game, UCF can knock them out at home in November.

SMU: The upstart Mustangs have tough games remaining against Cincy, Navy, at Tulsa, and Houston. If SMU goes 2-2 in that stretch, they’re out. Let’s not forget that three of their five wins this year have been by a single score and they’re still just a year removed from going 2-3 in their final five games after starting 8-0.

Memphis: Now this one’s tricky because the Tigers actually would need to lose twice since they have a tiebreaker over the Knights. But with road trips to Cincinnati, Tulane and Navy still looming as well as a home matchup with Houston, it’s very possible.

And remember: only two of these three scenarios need to play out for UCF to be in the AAC Championship. The chance is slim. But it’s still a chance.

3. Tulane is probably a better team than most people realize, but UCF is in desperate need of a blowout win on Saturday. It won’t be easy, but hanging a 20-point win or so on the Green Wave would do so much to settle the fanbase, instill some confidence in the team and show the players that they are still capable of amazing results.

I don’t think the Knights are in a ton of danger here. They simply have the better team and, again, the vast majority of what went wrong against Tulsa was corrected against Memphis. But a close win might not be enough at this point. If UCF really is going to get through this next stretch 3-0, it needs to show itself that it is still the same team that has won 20 of its last 29 AAC games by double digits.

Do that, and everything can be back on track by this time next week.

About Christian Simmons 168 Articles
Christian Simmons is the founder and editor of Knight Sports Now. You can follow him on Twitter at @ByCASimmons.