Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The defensive-minded Knights had a chance to win just about every game they played in 2011, but UCF still missed the bowl season with a 5-7 finish.
At the start of his eighth season as head coach, George O'Leary's team was projected to be headed to the Conference USA Championship for the second season and there were even some whispers of a BCS appearance. The Knights got off to a promising starts with convincing victories over Charleston Southern (62-0) and Boston College (30-3), but they lost their next two non-conference matches to FIU (17-10) and BYU (24-17). UCF opened up its C-USA season by topping Marshall (16-6), but lost its next two to SMU (38-17) and UAB (26-24). The Knights returned to Orlando to down Memphis (41-0), but a three-game losing slide followed as Tulsa (24-17), Southern Miss (30-29), and East Carolina (38-31) all outlasted UCF in close games. The Knights closed out their 2011 season and sent their seniors off the right way by defeating Texas- El Paso (31-14) in their finale.
With just five wins, UCF did not qualify for the C-USA Championship or the bowl season. The program was in a state of worry during the offseason as it waited for the NCAA's decision stemming from recruiting violations. The Knights received a one-year bowl ban, but the school decided to appeal the NCAA's ruling. The length of the appeal process will determine whether UCF has to serve its bowl ban in 2012 or 2013. If the appeal is rejected before the end of the season, the Knights will be ineligible in their last season in the C-USA. Although the chances are slim, UCF still could win its appeal and not have to miss any postseason action.
OFFENSE: Although UCF's defense was sensational in 2011, its offense was not the reason it failed to stay above .500. The Knights ranked 40th in the NCAA in total offense (406.8) despite a continuous quarterback competition. Last season's question mark under center is officially over as sophomore Blake Bortles (6-4, 221) has been handed the reins of the offense. The position became solely Bortles's to lose when 2011 starter, Jeff Godfrey, made a move to wide receiver. Tyler Gabbert, the younger brother of the current NFL quarterback Blaine Gabbert, is expected to back up Bortles after transferring from Missouri.
"I would describe this offense as explosive," said Godfrey. "We have a lot of weapons. Blake (Bortles) is doing a tremendous job at quarterback. We have tremendous receivers, running backs and offensive line. So when you think of the UCF offense you think explosive."
Bortles looked sharp in the spring game, completing 27-of-45 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown, despite having his wideouts drop 12 of his throws during the game. Senior Quincy McDuffie is the top target in the passing game, but J.J. Worton and Josh Reese will be viable options as well.
UCF fans are expecting big things out of Miami-Florida transfer Storm Johnson (6-1, 216) this season. The tailback has big play ability that returning seniors Latavius Murray and Brynn Harvey do not. Murray is still expected to get his fair share of touches to keep the defense off-balanced. The offensive line returns three key veterans, including two-year starter Jordan Rae (6-2, 275) at center.
DEFENSE: The Knights led C-USA in rushing defense (108.8), total defense (303.3), and scoring defense (18.3) last season and could do it again in 2012 with the return of several key players. Victor Gray (6-4, 267) should hear his name called more with his move from tackle to end. Gray and Troy Davis combine to make a very effective pass rushing tandem. The heavy pass rush should lead to some success for the secondary, which returns three starters in CB A.J. Bouye, SS Clayton Geathers, and FS Kemal Ishmael. The Jim Thorpe Award which goes to the top defensive back in football has Ishmael on its preseason watch list.
Ray Shipman is expected to make a big impact at linebacker this season as he becomes eligible after transferring from Florida. Shipman was a member of the men's basketball team with the Gators, but he was considered a four-star football prospect after his freshman year of high school. He will join Jonathan Davis and Terrance Plummer to make up a versatile linebacking unit.
SPECIAL TEAMS: O'Leary had to find replacements for his starting kicker and punter. Sophomore Shawn Moffitt made 5-of-9 field goal attempts as a backup last year, but he will be challenged by Sean Galvin for the position even as the season progresses. Senior Jamie Boyle will be the team's starting punter despite never attempting a punt in a collegiate game. UCF's return game will be one of the most dynamic in the nation with McDuffie and Rannell Hall fielding kicks. Hall averaged 31.0 yards per kick return last season to become the only true freshman to earn first-team All-C-USA honors.
OUTLOOK: The Knights' season not only faces the variables caused by a challenging schedule, they will also have to deal with the off-field distractions caused by the appeal process of their NCAA violations. O'Leary's team has a more difficult road in 2012, but the program is receiving votes in the preseason top 25 polls due to its impressive returning lineup.
"I think we have a solid football team back, and there was a lot of retention from the spring," O'Leary said. "We had a great offseason as far as the weight room is concerned. All of those young players who played last year, you can see they've got a little more girth to them, and a little more knowledge as far as where they belong and what they are supposed to do."
UCF has a two-game road trip in Ohio to start the season as it plays Akron on August 20 and Ohio State on September 8. The Knights return home for four straight and will have a chance to get revenge on FIU before Gabbert faces his former team, Missouri on September 29. UCF's league schedule starts off with two home games versus East Carolina and Southern Miss, but it has four of its next five on the road. The Knights close out their regular season and possibly Conference USA membership with a home game versus UAB on November 24.
The program's NCAA violations will set it back as it transitions into the Big East for 2013. The timing of the unfavorable decision could not come at a worse time as the Knights are once again projected to be legitimate conference title contenders.