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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 31: U.C.F.

Way to buck the mathematical trend, George O’Leary. You’ve heard it before: O’Leary wins in odd-numbered years and loses – or used to – in even-numbered years. Heading into last fall, the former Georgia Tech coach was 54-33 in the former and 32-41 in the latter; after last fall’s 11-3 finish in Orlando, O’Leary is 43-44 in even-numbered seasons. So that little tidbit, one used to great effect in 2008, 2009 and 2010, is no longer. Though perhaps I can recycle it for one more year, 2011, and hope the mathematical universe realigns. It will in one sense: these Knights are going to win. But that’s still par for the course for O’Leary in years ending in 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 — unless we can no longer rely on our long-standing mathematical trends.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Orlando, Fla.

Nickname
Knights

Returning starters
11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 56

2010 record
(11-3, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 20

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Charles. Southern
  • Sept. 10
    Boston College
  • Sept. 17
    at F.I.U.
  • Sept. 23
    at B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 8
    Marshall
  • Oct. 15
    at S.M.U.
  • Oct. 20
    at U.A.B.
  • Oct. 29
    Memphis
  • Nov. 3
    Tulsa
  • Nov. 12
    at Southern Miss.
  • Nov. 19
    at E.C.U.
  • Nov. 25
    UTEP

Last year’s prediction

So much depends on the development of Calabrese under center: his ascension to the starting role does not instill me with confidence, though the junior has the experience, ability and potential to far exceed any expectations. If Calabrese is a success, U.C.F. can win the Conference USA championship. These Knights topped Houston a year ago, and the U.C.F. defense will be even more stout in 2010. I’m not going to say the sky is the limit, as this offense — regardless of the success it had down the stretch last fall — will prevent the Knights from cracking the Top 25, for instance. Yet this is the best team in the East division, ahead of Southern Mississippi, and should advance to the Conference USA title game. With this defense, anything is possible when U.C.F. gets to that point.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Three losses, each by 10 points or less. There was N.C. State, 28-21, a game U.C.F. gave away with five turnovers. There was a 17-13 loss at Kansas State, a game the Knights pretty much dominated: yardage, time of possession, the line of scrimmage, what have you. Then there was a loss at home to Southern Mississippi, a loss that hurt but really didn’t mean much in the big picture. It was all roses outside of that trio: 11 wins, a new program record and a new high-water mark for a program quickly rising to the top of Conference USA. These Knights did it on the defensive side of the ball, finishing first in the conference and 15th in the F.B.S. in total defense and tying for eighth nationally in scoring. These Knights also got it done offensively, particularly on the ground. And better yet, this was a team that took on the weighty expectations and didn’t disappoint, taking care of business against the weaker teams on the schedule and suffering no lulls, minus that loss to the Golden Eagles. This was a great team.

High point It wasn’t a vintage Georgia team, but that U.C.F. took out such a marquee program during bowl play marked another step forward for the Knights. That’s a win for the media guide, as was a conference title game victory over S.M.U., one the Knights took over on the defensive side of the ball.

Low point Each of the three losses hurt in their own specific way, but I suppose the low point was a home loss to Southern Mississippi, U.C.F.’s lone conference defeat of the season. For one day, the defense didn’t deliver.

Tidbit And so ends the trend. From 1994, his first season at Georgia Tech, through 2009, George O’Leary went 32-41 in even-numbered years and 54-33 in odd-numbered years. So goes this lovely tidbit, which I unearthed on a lark three years ago and was dreadfully proud of in the years since. Now, as noted in the opening, O’Leary is 43-44 in even-numbered years. This is sad. O’Leary has yet to suffer a losing season in an odd year, while last year’s record gives him three seasons with more than five wins in an even year. Just with the Knights, O’Leary has won at least eight games in each odd-numbered year (2005, 2007, 2009), while combining to win 19 games altogether in his four even-numbered years. This tidbit isn’t as fun as it used to be.

Tidbit (defense edition) U.C.F. has now led Conference USA in rush defense for three straight years. Last year’s defense held opponents to 108.4 yards per game, a slightly worse total than in 2009, but allowed only nine scores on the ground, tied for sixth-fewest in the nation. In all, U.C.F. led Conference USA in rush defense, scoring defense (17.1 points per game), sacks (32), tackles for loss (88) and first downs allowed (17.4 per game) and finished second in pass defense (207.0 yards per game), interceptions (17) and forced fumbles (15). This defense was filthy.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) So if we discount T.C.U. and Utah, two programs soon to make the jump up the conference ladder, U.C.F. had the highest-ranked recruiting class by any non-B.C.S. conference program, according to Rivals.com. The Knights pulled in the nation’s 39th-best class, two spots behind the Utes and one slot ahead of Wisconsin. Other marquee programs with lower-ranked classes: Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, U.C.L.A., Missouri and West Virginia.

Former players in the N.F.L.

16 WR Kamar Aiken (Buffalo), OT Patrick Brown (Minnesota), CB Joe Burnett (New York Giants), DT Leger Douzable (Jacksonville), S Michael Greco (Carolina), LB Rashad Jeanty (Philadelphia), WR Brandon Marshall (Miami), FB Bruce Miller (San Francisco), WR Jamar Newsome (Jacksonville), K Matt Prater (Denver), OT Jah Reid (Baltimore), CB Asante Samuel (Philadelphia), WR Mike Sims-Walker (St. Louis), OG Josh Sitton (Green Bay), RB Kevin Smith (Detroit), DT Torrell Troup (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

H.S. freshman English books with sexual situations
1. “The Natural,” by Bernard Malamud.
2. “Slaughterhouse-Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut.
3. ”A Farewell to Arms,” by Ernest Hemingway.
4. “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
5. ”The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger.

Coaching

George O’Leary (New Hampshire ’69), 45-44 after seven seasons at Central Florida. Most famously, O’Leary compiled a 52-33 record at Georgia Tech from 1994-2001. O’Leary was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 2000, when the Yellow Jackets finished 9-3, second in the A.C.C. He was also a two-time A.C.C. Coach of the Year (1998 and 2000). O’Leary’s college coaching career began at Syracuse, where he coached the defensive line for seven seasons (1980-86). He then went to Tech, where he served as Bobby Ross’s defensive coordinator from 1987-91; the Yellow Jackets won the 1990 national championship. After following Ross to the San Diego Chargers (defensive line coach from 1992-93), O’Leary returned to Georgia Tech as coordinator in 1994, when he took over for the fired Tim Lewis with three games remaining on a 1-10 season. Of course, O’Leary’s post-Georgia Tech career was tarnished by the controversy surrounding his brief tenure as the head coach at Notre Dame, which ended after one week after the university discovered a number of inaccuracies in his resume. After two years with the Minnesota Vikings (2002 as line coach, 2003 as coordinator), O’Leary was tabbed at Central Florida. It’s been a relatively up-and-down stretch, though last year’s finish snapped O’Leary’s penchant for even-numbered failures, as noted. The Knights rebounded from an 0-11 initial campaign in 2004 to finish 8-5 in 2005, the biggest turnaround in the F.B.S. that season, but posted twin 4-8 marks in 2006 and 2008 surrounding their conference championship-winning team in 2007. After winning 19 games over the last two seasons, it seems that O’Leary has done enough on the field to take him off the hot seat. What has occurred off the field may end up being his downfall, however.

Players to watch

Jeff Godfrey remained a backup for about six quarters; by the time U.C.F. nearly completed a comeback win over N.C. State on the second Saturday of the season, the job was his. He began the year behind Rob Calabrese, now a senior, with the thought that Godfrey would be far too unpolished to serve as U.C.F.’s starter. So much for all that: Godfrey remains far from a finished product, but on athleticism alone he proved to be one of Conference USA’s best — as a freshman, mind you. On the year, Godfrey threw for 2,159 yards and 14 scores while completing 66.8 percent of his attempts in a simplified offensive attack designed to boost the true freshman’s confidence.

He still has a ways to go as a passer, but you can’t teach Godfrey’s ability to make plays with his legs: 566 yards rushing and 10 scores, both U.C.F. quarterback records. There were some bouts with inconsistency, befitting his age. His first real test was a dud: 8 of 18 for 92 yards and a pair of interceptions in a loss to Kansas State to end September. Godfrey tossed another pair of picks in the loss to Southern Mississippi roughly two months later, which does say something about how vital he was to this team’s success offensively. The only thing holding Godfrey back is a lack of presence in the pocket, which he was never forced to develop thanks to his outstanding athletic ability. Once he grows more comfortable dropping back to pass, the sky is the limit. U.C.F. has an answer at quarterback — finally.

There may not be a better backfield in the country. I’m serious: in terms of proven production, U.C.F. can tout a quartet of dangerous runners, including Godfrey, perhaps unmatched by anyone else. Really, I’m serious. Three players who rushed for at least 500 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall are back in the fold: Godfrey, senior Ronnie Weaver (890 yards, 11 scores) and junior Latavius Murray (637 yards, 11 scores). That alone pushes U.C.F. into the upper echelon of the F.B.S., perhaps not in talent but surely in terms of production. Then you add Brynn Harvey, an all-conference pick in 2009 (1,109 yards, 14 scores) who missed last season with an A.C.L. tear. I love this team’s mentality, which begins and ends with controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Offensively, U.C.F. is going to run all over the rest of Conference USA. The only question is whether one back steps forward to earn the majority of the touches or whether the Knights continue to share the rock.

The offensive line reshuffles a bit without tackles Abre Leggins and Jah Reid, with the latter an all-Conference USA pick as a senior. The Knights will move senior Nick Pieschel, an honorable mention all-conference selection in 2010, over to right tackle to replace Reid. Sophomore Chris Martin, a very promising young lineman, takes over for Leggins on the blind side after starting three games last fall, including the bowl win over Georgia. The game of dominoes continues with Theo Goins’ move from left to right guard; senior Cliff McCray’s 25 career starts makes him a solid pick to step in for Goins on the left side, though he’ll be pushed by his younger brother, Jordan. That leaves center, where nothing has changed: junior Jordan Rae, a former defensive tackle, started 13 games in the middle of the line last fall. The Knights return five players with starting experience and 10 linemen altogether, so there’s no reason to think the running game won’t continue to roll along.

The defense won’t be as good as it was a year ago. It will be only slightly worse, however: still Conference USA’s best, but it’ll be hard to be equally imposing with a few new faces along the front seven. In short, U.C.F. will go from awesome to simply great — a slim drop which won’t prevent the Knights from taking home the East division but one that might lead to a slight decline in production on the defensive side of the ball. I’ll hedge my bets, however, by saying that this defense does have the pieces to remain one of the nation’s best, especially in the secondary. If the front four can seamlessly insert former reserves into full-time starting roles the defense may not suffer anything more than a brief hiccup, in fact.

That I’m unwilling to take a stand reflects poorly on me, and I admit that. But you can see both sides: on one hand, you find U.C.F. without three of last year’s starting linemen; on the other, you see a group loaded with linemen with tremendous experience and production, albeit in a secondary role. This is especially so at end, where the Knights return Troy Davis (26 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Darius Nall (31 tackles, 8.5 sacks), two dominant backups to Bruce Miller and David Williams a year ago. They’ll inhabit larger roles in 2011, obviously, but look out for JUCO transfer Toby Jackson, who took on a starting role over the summer while Nall was away from the team for personal reasons.

Sophomore tackle Victor Gray (33 tackles, 7 for loss) is the lone holdover from last year’s starting foursome. While completely overshadowed by not just his three running mates in the starting lineup but also the two reserve ends, Gray put together a very strong rookie season. He’ll be counted for even more in 2011 and beyond, joining two other sophomores in making up the interior of U.C.F.’s line. One is E.J. Dunston, a part-time starter last fall who steps in for Wes Tunuufi Sauvao. Dunston’s a run-stuffer first and foremost, but he did show an ability to get into the backfield over a smaller sample size as a freshman. Looking for more size? Check out sophomore Jose Jose, who has a breathtaking name and, at 6’3, 371 pounds, the need for a bigger belt.

The Knights don’t lack for talent at linebacker. And yes, there’s a nice senior leader in the middle with Josh Linman (78 tackles, 9 for loss). But there isn’t much experience on the outside, which is a concern as U.C.F. attempts to replace a pair of underrated assets in Lawrence Young and Derrick Hallman. The most experienced alternative is junior Loren Robinson, who played in 10 games a year ago. That slight game experience is enough to give Robinson a leg up on the weak side, but he’ll have to produce in order to remain the starter. That’s because U.C.F. added a JUCO transfer in Ray Cottman and moved running back Jonathan Davis to the defensive side of the ball, and you don’t make those moves unless you have designs on both seeing the field. Davis certainly has the skills to step right into a major role. Junior Ray Shipman, a former basketball player at Florida, enters the fall slightly ahead of another JUCO transfer, Terran Buck, on the strong side.

Two starters were lost in the secondary. It’s a good thing, therefore, that the two returning starters are among the best in Conference USA. One who certainly is in the upper echelon of defensive backs is junior cornerback Josh Robinson (59 tackles, 2 picks), who combines rock-solid cover ability with a nose for the football. He’ll team with junior free safety Kemal Ishmael (team-best 93 tackles) to form a dynamite backfield twosome. A.J. Bouye (26 tackles, 1 interception) is an easy pick as Robinson’s running mate at cornerback, with sophomore Jordan Ozerities a nice, young, promising first man off the bench. That U.C.F. will probably go with a redshirt freshman, Clayton Geathers, at strong safety is a bit troubling but not a huge issue. Ishmael will provide some guidance to Geathers, and he won’t be asked to be a huge presence in the passing game, where many young strong safeties struggle.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver The Knights must replace last year’s three leading receivers — Brian Watters, Jamar Newsome and Kamar Aiken — which is cause for concern. You won’t find a receiver on this roster more experienced than senior A.J. Guyton (28 receptions for 353 yards), so look for him to be a major target in this passing game. What Guyton lacks is big-play ability, though he did pull down a 44-yard grab in last season’s win over Houston. U.C.F. hopes that return specialist Quincy McDuffie, a junior, can provide a spark: one of the nation’s best on kickoff returns, McDuffie showed some promise in a 13-grab, 144-yard 2010 campaign. If one U.C.F. skill player is going to break out it’ll be McDuffie, who has all the speed and ability to make plays in space but remains largely unproven as a receiver. It’s not a great thing to see that Guyton and McDuffie are the only two returning Knights to have made more than six receptions in 2010. So it’s on a batch of young targets, like Khymest and Marquee Williams — no relation — and redshirt freshmen J.J. Worton and Josh Reese to prevent the lack of proven depth from becoming a season-long liability. Remember Rob Calabrese, last year’s starting quarterback for a game and change? His days under center are over, with the senior moving out to receiver for his final season. Calabrese has size, but it’s rare that a senior makes such a drastic position change and makes an impact. The Knights also have several experienced ends but don’t call on Adam Nissley, D.J. Brown or Brendan Kelly all that much in the passing game. Kelly, the team’s H-back, will carry the ball on occasion.

Game(s) to watch

The Knights need to make a statement against Boston College and B.Y.U., beating at least one to justify the high expectations surrounding this team. Beating bad teams in Conference USA is one thing; wins over premier non-conference opposition would raise the program’s prestige another notch. If one team is going to overtake U.C.F. atop the East division it’ll be Southern Mississippi, which gets the Knights at home.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell U.C.F. is loaded for another conference title run. There’s very little standing in this team’s way on the field, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least wonder if the wrongful death suit that defined the program’s summer will hang over the Knights in the fall. I really don’t think it will, since all is forgotten once a team steps between the white lines; still, it’s something to consider. But that’s not the reason why I had U.C.F. at No. 20 after last season and have the Knights at No. 31 heading into 2011. Quite simply, it’s going to be hard for U.C.F. to win another 11 games, thanks to a slightly tougher schedule and a few personnel concerns. You can’t control the former, and U.C.F. should actually embrace the tougher slate that awaits come September — embracing shots at Boston College and B.Y.U., among a few others. As for the latter, the Knights do have some concerns at receiver and along the front seven, especially at linebacker. I’m not overly worried about the defensive line, especially if the two returning ends continue their production — if not improve upon it — as full-time starters. But the departed linebackers were a vital piece of the defense last fall, and the Knights don’t have optimal experience returning on the outside. To be honest, this is me nitpicking. U.C.F. has loads of talent, a great young quarterback, an experienced  coaching staff and solid depth nearly throughout: receiver, strong safety and outside linebacker notwithstanding. The Knights are really good — like second-best in Conference USA good, just behind Houston. Nine wins should be attainable even with a pair of tough non-conference games and road games against S.M.U. and Southern Mississippi.

Dream season B.C.S. buster: 12-0 in the regular season, U.C.F. knocks off Houston in the Conference USA title game to earn a trip to a B.C.S. bowl.

Nightmare season With this team and schedule, seven wins would be a supreme disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do U.C.F. fans congregate? Fans hang out at UCFSports.com and Inside Knights, though the latter seems a little quiet. You can also check out the Knights Notepad over at the Web site of the Orlando Sentinel.

Word Count

Through 9o (90!) teams 275,417.

Up Next

Who is No. 30? The mascot at tomorrow’s university was also a nickname for an all-star outfielder who ended his career 10th on a team’s all-time hit list.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Extremely difficult clue. It could be Air Force, Miami, Penn State, Utah, Missouri, West Virginia, Houston, or Mississippi State as all of those teams will be coming up soon.

  2. nate says:

    after much research, my guess is USF.

  3. John says:

    Florida? I did some research. Nickname for Mike Greenwell, an outfielder for the Red Sox, is “The Gator.”

  4. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    Okay, I give up. The only thing I could come up with is the guy who is 10th on the Detriot Tiger’s all time hit list, Mickey Cochrane. He was known as “Black Mike” and LSU’s mascot is Mike the Tiger, so my guess would be LSU, but this seems too low for them – especially since Gary Crowton is gone.

  5. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    By the way, like those before me I spent way too long on this one. Way to keep us on our toes, Paul.

  6. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    After some additional checking I think John is right. Mike Greenwell is 10th on the Red Sox’s all time hits list and this spot fits the Gators much better than LSU.

  7. Papa John says:

    I’m going with Florida, too, but I loved this clue! Much better than the Department of Water/Sanitation/Whatever clue a few days ago.

  8. Gotham Gator says:

    If it is my Gators, I can’t complain too much. Teams always struggle the year after a coaching change, even if the new coach has a name like Saban or Stoops or Carroll or even Meyer. It’s also a young team. Expect the Gators to win 1-2 they shouldn’t, lose 1-2 they shouldn’t, make a decent bowl and try and lay a foundation for 2012.

  9. nate says:

    oh you guys are definitely right. I was looking at the wrong column on baseballreference.com. Their information is literally too thorough. its just jam packed.

  10. shane-o says:

    after much research, my guess is that USF blows and was ranked too high when they were already picked at 39

  11. Bob says:

    So with UCF, you already have Georgia ahead of 3 teams that they lost to last year, as well as at least 4 Pac-12 teams that are far superior to them. You need to recalibrate your East Coast Bias, sir.

  12. DB says:

    Great piece on UCF. This is my first time here and I will surely come back as I can easily see that you did some solid research on my Knights. I agreed with probably 90% of what you said which is more than I can say for most journalists who cover UCF on the regular.

  13. Orlando Native says:

    Very nice write-up…appears you’ve done your homework.

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