Everyone knew that UCF’s transition from the AAC to the Big 12 was going to be a challenge. A few overly hopeful fans had talked themselves into a 10-win campaign in Year 1, but the general expectation for the Knights was to fall in the 7-5 or 8-4 range.
Instead, the season has largely been a disaster.
Halfway through 2023, UCF sits at 3-3. It has gotten there thanks to a double-digit loss to Kansas State, a blown 35-7 lead against Baylor and a stunning blowout loss to Kansas.
The only thing that sits between the Knights and a 2-4 record with wins only coming against Kent State and Villanova is a made Colton Boomer field goal as time expired to steal one against Boise State.
The team had a bye week to regroup and is now ready to kick off the second half of the season with its most formidable opponent yet in Oklahoma.
Things are bleak.
How did we get here? How did a season that was supposed to mark a major, celebratory milestone for UCF’s program turn into a nightmare stretch that’s included the team’s first three-game losing streak in seven years?
Let’s take a look at each part of the roster to nail down how the Knights got to this point, where things went wrong, and whether any of it is fixable in the second half of the year.
- What Went Right: John Rhys Plumlee took a leap from last year.
- What Went Wrong: He’s been hurt for most of the season.
After a rocky rollercoaster of a season in 2022, all eyes were on John Rhys Plumlee and whether he could take the leap while cutting back on his mistakes.
The good news is that it very much did seem like he’d taken a significant step forward when he was playing. The bad news is that he’s been hurt since the second game of the year.
It’s hard to make a case that UCF’s season is that much more on track right now if Plumlee had remained healthy given the defense’s woes, but the lack of consistency at the position has certainly caused issues.
That was particularly on display against Kansas when the coaching staff seemingly couldn’t decide between rolling with a still-recovering Plumlee or switching to Timmy McClain for several drives. The Knights were down 17-0 by the time they’d made up their mind.
McClain has been a more than serviceable backup, completing 64% of his passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns to two interceptions. But there have been critical mistakes as well along with the fact that he doesn’t bring nearly as much production with his legs as Plumlee does.
There are plenty of issues up and down the roster, but JRP staying healthy could have really helped the season. The good news is that he is set to start against Oklahoma. Hopefully, that will end better than his start against Kansas did.
- What Went Right: RJ Harvey is a phenomenal player and key cog to the offense.
- What Went Wrong: The much-advertised depth of the position has not materialized.
Throughout the offseason, the running back room was projected to be one of UCF’s greatest strengths in 2023 and it has mostly lived up to that hype. RJ Harvey has been as phenomenal as expected and is currently on pace to become the Knights’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2018 while Johnny Richardson has contributed plenty as well.
But the depth at RB that made the group so tantalizing – along with the hopes of building a two-headed monster at the position – hasn’t materialized.
Former five-star Demarckus Bowman was projected for much of the spring to potentially be able to challenge Harvey for the title of best back on the roster but failed to break out.
Redshirt freshman Jordan McDonald seemed primed to take over the “Wild Bowser” role but struggled early and hasn’t recorded a single carry in Big 12 play.
Even Richardson, while clearly cementing himself as RB2, still hasn’t proven himself as an every-down back (he picked up 79 yards on his first touch against Baylor but recorded just eight total yards on his next four carries).
There’s little argument to be made that the running back position shoulders any of the blame for the season going off the rails. But it certainly hasn’t been quite as deep or effective as we thought it was going to be a few months ago.
- What Went Right: Kobe Hudson and Javon Baker are both having strong seasons as expected.
- What Went Wrong: None of the many transfers brought in have made an impact.
Following two fairly anemic years to start the Gus Malzahn Era at wide receiver, the position appears to be as effective as it has been since this staff took over.
But it still largely feels like a room of squandered potential. UCF loaded up on transfers this offseason to fill out a group that had been startlingly thin in recent years, but those additions have failed to add much of anything to the team.
Corey Gammage was a huge impact player for Marhsall but didn’t even make it onto the Knights’ depth chart after being added as a late arrival. Kentucky transfer Chauncey Magwood has just four catches. Trent Whittemore came in from Florida with some hype and is still looking for his first catch of the year halfway through the season.
Even Xavier Townsend – who saw plenty of action as a true freshman – hasn’t consistently made an impact.
The good news is that Kobe Hudson and Javon Baker have both shined and been major difference makers on offense. Hudson in particular may end up being the breakout player of the season after going for 100+ receiving yards in three straight games.
But a shocking number of transfer misses has heavily limited what this position is capable of.
- What Went Right: Alec Holler has remained a solid starter and Randy Pittman has shown flashes.
- What Went Wrong: Really nothing.
The tight ends hold the rare distinction of largely living up to what was expected of them in the offseason. Former walk-on Alec Holler has defied all odds to remain one of UCF’s most effective players, even after the team brought in a former SEC starter to attempt to take his job in 2022.
He’s dealt with injury issues here and there in 2023 but has remained a key cog for the offense.
Randy Pittman was considered a likely candidate for breakout freshman and has mostly matched those early expectations. He’s already hauled in 10 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown, showing that he has the potential to be a dangerous weapon for UCF in the coming years.
It may not be the most extraordinary position group but in a season full of unwelcome surprises, stability is nothing to scoff at.
- What Went Right: A significant amount of depth is clearly present.
- What Went Wrong: The starting O-line has been a revolving door.
Throughout the offseason, we heard plenty of talk about how this offensive line unit was one of the deepest of Malzahn’s career and that the only real issue would be determining their best five while finding the most ideal spot on the field for each player.
That issue has turned out to be nearly impossible to overcome.
Just look at the center position. Bula Schmidt transferred in from Fresno State to compete for the job but ended up starting at left guard. Drake Metcalf was named the starting center but was then benched for redshirt freshman Caden Kitler after a couple of mistakes. Kitler went on to get hurt against Baylor, leading to Schmidt starting in his place against Kansas.
Elsewhere, Marcellus Marshall has started everywhere from right tackle to left guard over the course of the year. Amari Kight looked like a bust who was not even named a starter but is now slotted at right tackle.
Simply put… it’s been a mess.
Offensive lines are meant to grow together and might be the position where consistency matters most of all. The constant reshuffling and retooling has made it difficult for that group to come anywhere close to its full potential.
- What Went Right: The D-line lived up to the hype of being the strongest defensive unit.
- What Went Wrong: Key injuries have weakened the position.
The defensive line was projected to be the heart and soul of this defense virtually the entire offseason. And that has very much been the case for this unit.
But the D-line has not been immune to some of the problems that have impacted other parts of the roster so heavily.
Transfer misses have played a role. Both Josh Celiscar and Tre’Mon Morris-Brash have been asked to do it all for UCF over the last couple years at a position that usually requires a good amount of depth. Shaun Peterson was brought in from FIU to provide that depth and, while he has played, has not been quite the difference maker the staff had hoped for.
Injuries have taken their toll as well. Ricky Barber may be the Knights’ best defensive player and he has been limited with injury virtually the entire season, missing two games and playing sparingly in a couple others.
Losing his play-to-play impact cannot be overstated. It has also forced true freshman John Walker to grow up fast, pushing him into a much more expanded role than the coaching staff envisioned for Year One of their prized recruit.
He’s shown why he was such a valuable addition – and was named a mid-season True Freshman All-American by On3 – but the position would be in better shape right now if he was providing that value as much-needed depth behind a bona fide star in Barber.
Not all developments along the D-line have been bad, however. Malachi Lawrence and Matthew Alexander are two names that UCF fans better get used to as they continue to have a surprisingly large impact for the team.
Barber has also healed up and is set to return against Oklahoma, providing a huge boost.
But unfortunately for the defensive line, there is only so much it can do given the situation behind it…
- What Went Right: Jason Johnson continues to play well after a strong 2022 campaign.
- What Went Wrong: There is virtually no depth here.
It sounds harsh to say, but there is simply no position that shoulders more responsibility for UCF’s disastrous start to Big 12 play than the linebacker unit.
Over the last two years, the coaching staff was fixated on doing everything it could to upgrade the Knights’ roster to be able to compete at the Power Five level in time for the Big 12 move.
At some positions, that talent acquisition was a success. At linebacker, it has been misstep after misstep.
The team lost star Tatum Bethune to the portal after 2021, with solid starter Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste departing following 2022.
Two formerly highly rated recruits with plenty of question marks were added as transfers in Branden Jennings and Terrence Lewis. Both were gone from the roster within a few months.
The staff lost transfer commitments from Kriss Moll in 2022 and Antonio Grier in 2023.
Add all of those losses together and you get a position that, at most, has one Power Five-level starter available.
Jason Johnson has been a solid addition for UCF, but he is far and away the only impact player in that room. Walter Yates has started but struggled throughout the season. Rian Davis was brought in as a transfer from Georgia but has been ineffective when playing.
This gaping hole in the middle of the defense has been heavily exploited by opposing teams. Kansas State’s DJ Giddens rushed for 207 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries against UCF. Kansas rushed for a shocking 399 yards against them a couple weeks later.
Unfortunately for the Knights, this is an issue that simply isn’t fixable in-season. The talent is not there. And opposing teams will continue to exploit that.
- What Went Right: The unit has been stronger than anticipated.
- What Went Wrong: Most transfer additions haven’t worked out.
UCF’s secondary has been an off-and-on eyesore in recent years, but has put together a surprisingly solid season so far.
Holdovers like Corey Thornton and Brandom Adams have done their part. Younger players like Demari Henderson and Nikai Martinez have begun to emerge.
But the issue, like much of the rest of the roster, has been transfer misses. The Knights appeared to have significantly upgraded their secondary in the offseason, but a lot of those additions have failed to pan out.
Decorian Patterson was a start CB at Middle Tennessee, even leading the nation in interceptions last season. He hasn’t been much of a factor at all.
Jireh Wilson was an impact player for East Carolina (and helped beat UCF in 2022) who has contributed but not to the degree most expected.
DeJordan Mask is one transfer who has played a bigger role but, overall, a lot of scholarships went towards transfers that just haven’t materialized as anticipated.