Finally, and perhaps somewhat unbelievably, it’s game week for UCF Football. The Knights will head up to Atlanta this weekend for a Saturday afternoon matchup with Georgia Tech, kicking off what is sure to be a strange—but extremely fun—2020 season. UCF is once again expected to be the class of the American Athletic Conference, picked in the media’s preseason poll to win the league. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the Knights this year, but we’ve gone ahead and narrowed it down to five. Let’s get it going.
1. It’s UCF Football and it’s being played
Of course, you could use “it’s UCF Football!” as a catch-all reason to be excited in any season, but it’s just different this year. There was definitely a time where it seemed like a legitimate possibility that we wouldn’t get college football at all in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic shut the sports world down for months and even when leagues like the NWSL, MLS, NBA and NHL came back, it was confined to a bubble. So, yeah, college football really seemed to be in question for a while there. You could even argue that it still is, as the Pac-12 and Big Ten are currently unclear about the plans for their seasons.
But after the months of concerns and questions, we’re getting some form of a college football season, and UCF fans everywhere have to be thrilled that said season will include the AAC. The Knights haven’t played a game since their Gasparilla Bowl victory over Marshall on Dec. 23, 2019, and the thought of waiting any longer than a traditional offseason for them to come back is enough to make anyone shudder. Of course, it would’ve been understandable if the conference had postponed the 2020 campaign given the state of the U.S. right now, but it still would’ve made for a long, sad wait for the return of the black and gold.
2. Year two for Dillon Gabriel
After losing a true Heisman Trophy candidate like McKenzie Milton at the end of the 2018 season, things could’ve been scary for UCF at the quarterback position. But it never was. Darriel Mack Jr. stepped in and led the Knights to a victory in the AAC Championship Game the very next week, then the team started 2019 with a variety of viable options in the QB room. But there was one that emerged as a star: Dillon Gabriel. The true freshman impressed in relief duty in UCF’s season-opening win over FAMU before getting his first start the next week at FAU. Overall, he threw for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns to seven interceptions while leading the Knights to a top-five finish in scoring offense.
So, what’s ahead in 2020 for Gabriel? He enters his sophomore season with plenty to build on from last year. He did have his freshman moments—all of which seemed to come in the team’s three losses—but there’s plenty of reason to be truly excited about what year two has in store. He will be leading a Knights offense that, despite the losses of Adrian Killins Jr. and Gabriel Davis, has a ton going for it. With a year under his belt, Gabriel is primed for an even bigger season as a sophomore. Remember the jump that Milton had from year one to year two? If we see a similar improvement from No. 11, it should be a thrill to watch. It’s just a shame that we’re missing out on the Gabriel vs. Sam Howell matchup of sophomore quarterbacks that we were supposed to get at the start of the season.
3. An impressive stable of running backs
The aforementioned offense that “has a ton going for it” includes an unreal amount of depth in the backfield. The Knights have been deep at running back for years now, but the number of complete game-changers at the position in 2020 should be mouthwatering for any football fan. Otis Anderson is back for his senior year, as is Greg McCrae. While Adrian Killins is gone, Bentavious Thompson, Damarius Good and Trillion Coles are all still in the mix as well. That’s five deep already, and you can be sure that redshirt freshman RJ Harvey—who transferred from Virginia—and true freshman Johnny Richardson—a three-star prospect—will be looking to make an impact during whatever chances they get.
What should be really interesting regarding these running backs is how Josh Heupel and his coaching staff distribute carries and get each guy involved. Anderson will presumably continue to play his hybrid role, working both as a running back and a slot receiver. McCrae, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018, should get his fair share of snaps as well. Thompson could—and should—take on a bigger role this year after putting up a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns last year. And that still leaves Richardson, Good, Coles, and Harvey to join the fun, perhaps in late-game situations when the win is in hand for the Knights. That’s not a knock on those guys, but there are only so many carries to go around. We may not know how things will get distributed, but we do know that no matter what, this backfield will be fun to watch.
4. The sheer amount of talent at the defensive back position
From one insanely talented position group to another, let’s talk defensive backs, because UCF sure does have some good ones. The loss of Tay Gowan, who opted out due to COVID-19 concerns, hurts a bit, but the Knights have plenty of guys ready to step up and keep the defensive backfield among the conference’s best. With a schedule that features a number of talented quarterbacks, including Holton Ahlers (ECU) and Brady White (Memphis), UCF needs its defensive backs to be up to the task.
At the safety position, Richie Grant and Antwan Collier will lead the way. Grant was named to the watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award and the Bednarik Award earlier this summer, plus he has some real NFL Draft buzz surrounding him as he enters his redshirt senior season. At corner, the Knights have guys like Aaron Robinson, Zamari Maxwell and Dyllon Lester ready to step in, as well as a whole host of talented newcomers hoping to contribute.
Divaad Wilson (who transferred from Georgia) and Jaiden Francois (a transfer from Nebraska) are both hoping to gain eligibility to play immediately. If they are able to play in 2020, they can be expected to contribute, but even if they aren’t, the coaching staff has been impressed with a lot of the freshmen, including Davonte Brown, Justin Hodges and Corey Thornton, who was recently named to the 247Sports Preseason True Freshman All-American Team. Not to mention, there’s still a chance for Brandon Moore to return from his ACL injury this year. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s possible.
TL;DR: The Knights have a lot of exciting players in their secondary and you should be excited to watch them.
5. The chase for another New Year’s Six bid
This is what it’s all about. The Knights are preseason favorites to win the AAC, which means they’re also preseason favorites to grab the Group of Five spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Of course, they have appeared in three New Year’s Six games since 2013 and have won two of them, but they missed out last year after losing three games by a combined seven points. In 2020, the ultimate goal is to get back. And the easiest way to do that is by winning the AAC. It appears the schedule will stay as-is, meaning no more out-of-conference games beyond the season opener at Georgia Tech. That allows Heupel and his team to focus on a tough conference slate that is highlighted by a mid-October trip to Memphis and a November home game against Cincinnati.
If the Knights run the table, they’ll set themselves up for a major bowl game. Without the Big Ten (maybe) and Pac-12 (we think?), an undefeated UCF would be hard for the College Football Playoff committee to ignore, right? Well, you can’t put anything past that bunch, but the Knights would presumably have a good case. They were No. 21 in the initial AP Poll, but now they’ll start the season at No. 14. Keep winning and who knows what happens? Maybe 2020 is just weird enough for UCF to get a CFP call. Regardless, the goal has to be a NY6 bid. Get there, and you give yourself a chance to once again prove you belong in the big-time.
You simply cannot forget that, no matter what’s happening on the field results-wise, UCF will be winning the uniform battle. The Knights’ uniforms are fantastic, especially when it comes to their helmets. And trying to guess what combination the team will be wearing in a given week is always fun, as is the feeling of getting that tweet notification from UCF Equipment a couple of days before each game. You just know that the equipment team had some fun putting ideas together when there was nothing else to do during quarantine times.
Kickoff for UCF’s season opener against Georgia Tech is set for 3:30 p.m. It will be televised on ABC.