ORLANDO, Fla. – With two double-digit win seasons over the past three years, Central Florida coach George O'Leary has had plenty to celebrate recently.
The Knights are no longer jumping to the Big East Conference they thought they were entering, but a new American Athletic Conference with one remaining year of Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying status is something.
O'Leary isn't satisfied just having an opportunity to make a splash in 2013 with a schedule that also includes Penn State and South Carolina, though. He wants to finally see UCF realize all the potential he's been trumpeting.
"I think you're judged on your out of conference wins," O'Leary said. "I think the perception, with any conference, is you're going to have competitive teams. I think out of conference is where the nation judges you...You gotta win those games. If you want to sit there and play that way, you've gotta beat those people. That's what the nature of the game is."
To make that next step, UCF will rely heavily on junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who is moving into his second year as the starter and is on several national award watch lists. He'll anchor an offense that returns six starters, compared to just five for the defense.
From his perspective, Bortles said he's ready for the challenge of leading this team.
"I think being able to play and perform has to do with earning everybody on the team's respect," Bortles said. "So I think this year there's definitely a little more of that and a little more trust. I've been able to do that by the guys I'm surrounded by."
Here are five things that could make or break UCF having a big inaugural season in the new AAC:
1. BORTLES PROGRESSION: UCF coach George O'Leary has been hard on quarterbacks during his tenure, but he had little to quibble with Bortles' performances last season. Though O'Leary poked at his decision making at times, with 25 touchdowns to only seven interceptions, Bortles had a steady progression and wasn't afraid to take chances in the passing attack when it was needed. Bortles should get a boost again from a mostly intact and veteran corps of receivers. He's also on both the Davey O'Brien and Maxwell Award Watch Lists, so dealing with expectations appears to be his biggest challenge in his second season as the Knights' leader on offense.
2. STORM BREWS: The Knights lost a 1,000-yard rusher and 15 touchdowns from 2012 with the graduation of Latavius Murray. Now, former University Miami transfer and junior Storm Johnson looks to be the guy to anchor the Knights' rushing attack. Johnson rushed for 507 yards and four scores a year ago and has shown explosiveness. With very young understudies behind him, his durability could be paramount to UCF's overall offensive effectiveness.
3. FILLING GAPS ON OFFENSIVE LINE: Neither Bortles nor Johnson will be able to do anything if the Knights don't firm up their offensive line following the graduation of Jordan Rae and Theo Goins. Senior twin brothers Jordan and Justin McCray will provide leadership at the guard spots, and Joey Grant switched from defensive line to center this spring and is a capable replacement for Rae. The question is whether new projected starters Chris Martin, a redshirt senior, and redshirt junior Torrian Wilson will produce as well.
4. SEIZING BIG OPPORTUNITIES: Nearby rival and new conference-mate South Florida has enjoyed some national success with big wins over top BCS programs. But minus former Conference USA teams joining them in the AAC, the Knights are just 4-49 against schools from automatic BCS qualifying conferences. The last of those wins came in 2011 against Boston College. The Knights have several opportunities to grab those marquee wins this season with a trip to Penn State and home matchup with South Carolina. They also have conference matchups with USF, Louisville and Rutgers.
5. QUIRKY SCHEDULE: The Knights have three bye weeks in 2013, the most of O'Leary's tenure at UCF. Also mixed in is a Thursday matchup against Akron, and three Friday dates, including the renewal of the Knights' matchup with USF on Nov. 29.
Predicted finish in AAC: Fourth.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/