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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. 56: U.C.F.

There's a lot to do in Orlando! Sun! Universal Studios! But be sure to avoid the U.C.F. offense.

George O’Leary might not give his kingdom — such as it is — for an offense, though U.C.F. would do its seventh-year head coach a nice favor by putting the ball in the end zone with a tad more consistency. At least last year’s offense was better than the 2008 version, which had fans throughout the region at least contemplating eyeball removal, if not simply a blindfold. Not to say that U.C.F. is on the verge of scoring 40 — or even 30 — points per game in 2010: if history is any guide, the Knights should score roughly 17.3 points per game, U.C.F.’s average output over the 35 games played in even-numbered years since O’Leary took over in 2006. Hey, statistics don’t lie.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Orlando, Fla.

Nickname
Knights

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 98

2009 record
(8-5, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 57

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    South Dakota
  • Sept. 11
    N.C. State
  • Sept. 18
    at Buffalo
  • Sept. 25
    at Kansas St.
  • Oct. 6
    U.A.B.
  • Oct. 13
    at Marshall
  • Oct. 23
    Rice
  • Oct. 30
    E.C.U.
  • Nov. 5
    at Houston
  • Nov. 13
    Southern Miss
  • Nov. 20
    at Tulane
  • Nov. 27
    at Memphis

Last year’s prediction

The real issue I have with this team is its offense, despite the nearly wholesale return of last year’s starting lineup. This unit showed nothing last fall to expect they would be anything more than marginally improved this season, unless Calabrese, a year wiser, takes a monumental step forward. Another concern is the secondary, which must replace four of the best performers in school history. I certainly have respect for O’Leary and the job has done over his career, but I don’t have high hopes for this team. I predict the Knights to finish no better than 5-7, leaving them outside of bowl play for the third time in four years. If that is the case, the program may have a new head coach in 2010.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A light seemed to turn on for Central Florida in the second half of the season. U.C.F. finished its first six games with a 3-3 record – not a bad start after winning four games in all of 2008 – yet frustrated fans with its uneven play. For example, take Central Florida’s five-point win over Samford – Samford, not Stanford – to open the season. It was followed by a narrow defeat at Southern Mississippi, which teamed with a 19-14 loss at East Carolina to sandwich a six-point win over Buffalo. How can the same team beat Samford and lose to E.C.U. by the same margin? Frustrating, right? Perhaps it took U.C.F. some time to find its rhythm, especially on offense: the Knights averaged 32.2 points per game in winning five of their last six heading into bowl play, with that lone loss coming at Texas. What clicked? Perhaps the offense needed time to embrace a new offensive coordinator. Maybe U.C.F. needed an easier schedule; the last six games of the regular season was easier, even if one game came at Texas, than the first half. The season ended poorly, with a sub par performance in the St. Petersburg Bowl, but if U.C.F. can duplicate the formula that led to the spectacular second half, the Knights could grab back-t0-back winning seasons for the first time under George O’Leary.

High point A 5-1 stretch to end the season. All five of those wins came in conference play –the one loss came at the hands of then-No. 2 Texas — with the most impressive a 37-32 win against Houston, the eventual West division champion. The Knights outscored their final three opponents (Houston, Tulane and U.A.B.) by 113 points to 59.

Low point Single-digit losses in Conference USA action to Southern Mississippi and East Carolina. The loss to E.C.U. gave the Pirates the division title. U.C.F. also put forth a poor effort in a St. Petersburg Bowl loss to Rutgers, losing by three touchdowns.

Tidbit And so continues the trend. Beginning with 1994, his first season at Georgia Tech, George O’Leary has gone 32-41 in even-numbered years and 54-33 in odd-numbered years. He has yet to suffer a losing season in an odd year, while he has only twice won more than five games 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 eight games altogether in his three even-numbered years. What is going on here?

Tidbit (defense edition) U.C.F. led Conference USA in total defense (350.5 yards per game), rush defense (82.8 yards per game), sacks per game (2.9) and tackles for loss per game (7.2). The Knights have now led the conference in rush defense in back-to-back seasons, joining T.C.U. — formerly a member of Conference USA — as the only programs in the conference’s history to do so. On the year, U.C.F. was the only team among the top seven nationally in rush defense to finish with fewer than 10 wins.

Former players in the N.F.L.

17 S Atari Bigby (Green Bay), OT Patrick Brown (Minnesota), CB Joe Burnett (Pittsburgh), DT Leger Douzable (Detroit), S Michael Greco (New York Giants), OT Cornell Green (Buffalo), LB Rashard Jeanty (Cincinnati), TE Darcy Johnson (St. Louis Rams), WR Brandon Marshall (Miami), K Matt Prater (Denver), S Sha’reff Rashard (New York Giants), CB Asante Samuel (Philadelphia), WR Mike Sims-Walker (Jacksonville), OG Josh Sutton (Green Bay), RB Kevin Smith (Detroit), DT Torell Troup (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Knights of the Round Table
1. Sir Galahad.
2. Sir Lancelot.
3. Sir Gawain.
4. King Pellinore.
5. Sir Bedivere.

Coaching

George O’Leary (New Hampshire ’69), 34-41 after six 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, as the above tidbit explained. 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 have posted twin 4-8 marks in 2006 and 2008 surrounding their conference championship-winning team in 2007. After winning eight games last fall, however, O’Leary may have taken himself off the hot seat upon which he entered last season. Still, it would be nice to see him lead the Knights to back-to-back winning seasons.

Players to watch

You can’t ignore the impact offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe has on this U.C.F. offense last fall, especially when the Knights began to accustom themselves to the offense: as noted, the offense took off over the second half of the year. The offensive line, itself led by a new coach, made a significant improvement. Four of last season’s starters return, led by all-conference right tackle Jah Reid. The senior was a first-team all-conference pick last fall, the first season where Reid seemed to put together solid technique to go with size and physical acumen. The right side of the line is very good shape, with sophomore Theo Goins joining Reid to form a formidable strong side. The left side lags, though junior tackle Nick Pieschel began to round into form over the second half of the year. This front received some good news when the N.C.A.A. granted Cliff McCray an additional two years of eligibility: when his career ends, McCray will be a very, very rare seventh-year senior. Start picking out master’s programs, Cliff.

The improvement up front led to increased production on the ground, as junior Brynn Harvey posted 1,109 yards and 14 touchdowns, earning honorable mention all-conference honors in the process. While not quite the pounder as Kevin Smith, the former 2,000-yard U.C.F. back, Harvey can carry the load when called upon: as case in point, check out his 42-carry, 219-yard performance in a win over Memphis. Harvey topped the 100-yard five times on the year, including in each of the final three games of the regular season. Sophomore Jonathan Davis, who rushed for 310 yards and 4 scores as a rookie, is a solid reserve.

The Knights return their top two receivers from a year ago: senior Kamar Aiken led the team in receiving yards (610), touchdowns (9) and yards per catch average (16.9); while junior A.J. Guyton, who missed all of the 2008 campaign, chipped in with 44 receptions for 572 yards. U.C.F. also expects big things from sophomore Quincy McDuffie, the most athletic member of the receiver corps, who should move from being primarily a special teams contributor to an integral part of the rotation. The Knights might not have a proven possession guy, a role Rocky Ross played over the last few years, but this group — which also welcomes several players coming off redshirt seasons — will be better in 2010.

And now: quarterback. This is a major question mark. The starter will be junior Rob Calabrese, who has yet to impress in several extended periods of play over his first two seasons. The offense, which is strong up front, talented in the running game and capable at receiver, will only go as far as Calabrese can take it; he needs to improve, or U.C.F. will disappoint. Is there any good news? Yes, of course. For starters, Calabrese has improved. The returns from the spring were largely positive, and the junior even showed slightly better decision-making when called upon a season ago. In his favor: Calabrese can do more with his legs than his predecessor, Brett Hodges, and could have an impact in this regard.

What a difference a year makes: after entering last fall as a major question mark — thanks to the departure of four premier starters — the U.C.F. secondary enters 2010 as an unquestioned strength, thanks to the return of several young, gifted defensive backs and the experienced gained a season ago. To be fair, the secondary was up-and-down last fall, allowing nearly 270 yards passing per game and 20 scores; however, opponents knew they had to throw on this defense, as the front dominated the line of scrimmage against the run. There is certainly reason to believe we’ll see a significant improvement in 2010.

Cornerback Josh Robinson was the finest freshman cornerback in the country a year ago, filling the void left by his predecessor’s departure by setting a new school record with six interceptions as a rookie. Like the rest of the team, Robinson was a different player down the stretch: five of his interceptions came in the final seven games of the year. The Knights have options on the opposite side, where 2009 starter Justin Boddie is joined by former starter Emery Allen, who missed nearly all of last fall due to injury. The team could also call upon sophomore A.J. Bouye, who showed flashes of potential in light duty as a freshman.

Yet another sophomore, Kemal Ishmael, impressed after being thrust into the starting lineup. He finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles, adding an interception, despite making only nine starts. The strong safety spot will come down to seniors Darin Baldwin and Reggie Weams, each of whom earned significant action in 2009. Baldwin is the favorite — he was a part-time starter — but Weams has been a member of the secondary rotation since his freshman season.

Ishmael’s success as free safety allowed senior Derrick Hallman to make a permanent move to strong side linebacker: he responded with 85 tackles, most of any returning defender, giving him a team-high 193 career stops. Hallman has managed to retain his athleticism despite adding some size to his frame, size he needed to stand up to the pounding he took at his new position. Senior Lawrence Young, who has made at least 72 tackles in each of the last two years — including 78, 11 for loss, a year ago — returns on the weak side. The Knights will miss Cory Hogue, but senior Chance Henderson is poised to take over in the middle. A valuable member of the linebacker corps in 2008, Henderson has fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him all of the 2009 season.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line The Knights are in wonderful condition at end, largely due to the the presence of senior end Bruce Miller, the reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. Miller, who posted a league-best 13 sacks in 2009, leads all active F.B.S. players with 27 career sacks, while his 44 career tackles for loss ranks second nationally among returning players. He’ll be joined by fellow senior David Williams, who added 27 tackles (6 for loss) and a sack a year ago. The end rotation also includes junior Darius Nall, a pass-rushing specialist who contributed four sacks to the cause. The interior of the line will be new, however, following the departure of starter Torell Troup and Travis Timmons. One player likely destined for an important role is fifth-year senior Wes Tunuufi-Sauvao, the most experience returning interior lineman despite his part-time status last fall. Due to attrition, the Knights will turn to a handful of freshmen to provide depth and production alongside Tunuufi-Sauvao. One such lineman, true freshman E.J. Dunston, left the spring — he joined the program in January — atop the depth chart, ahead of redshirt freshmen Victor Gray and Frankie Davis. Thanks to the new look at tackle, it will be tough for U.C.F. to again pace Conference USA in rush defense.

Game(s) to watch

The schedule shapes up nicely. That three-game stretch from Oct. 30 – Nov. 13 may not dictate whether U.C.F. returns to bowl play, but it will decide the team’s chances at playing for a conference championship.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Let’s get this out of the way: U.C.F. will finish over .500 in 2010, breaking O’Leary’s strange tendency to suffer in even-numbered years. The defense alone, along with a healthy ground game, will lift the Knights to at least seven wins, though it wouldn’t be pretty; U.C.F. fans are used to winning ugly, however. 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. Yes, Houston is tough; the Cougars will be a potent offensive force. Yet 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.

Dream season A winning season for O’Leary in an even-numbered year? He doesn’t only lead the Knights to a second consecutive winning season (a program first since 2000-2), but also to a second conference championship in four years.

Nightmare season The Knights finish a disappointing 4-8, showing none of the offensive explosiveness that defined the second half of the 2009 season.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 55? Our next team was the only non-B.C.S. conference squad to finish in top 30 nationally in scoring defense in 2009 and not win at least eight games. In honor of loyal reader Jim Narby, no, it’s not Nebraska.

Tidbit (errors have been made edition) As 120 previews are written in 120 days, errors are bound to made. See above, where the hint for tomorrow’s preview was supposed to be read “top 30 nationally in scoring defense,” not “top 30 nationally in passing defense.” Please reconsider the hint, as the earlier one made no sense.

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Comments

  1. george howley says:

    The mac conference did not have many quality passing teams-next one up should be N.Illinois.

  2. Foster Walrus says:

    Golden Hurricane is up next I think

  3. Foster Walrus says:

    oh non-bcs, must be notre dame then

  4. GTwill says:

    Small correction: Bill Lewis ran Georgia Tech into the ground. Tim Lewis is the secondary coach for the Falcons.

  5. Jim Narby says:

    thanks for the shout out.
    i’m surprised nebraksa has made it this far.

  6. BFahey says:

    I logged on today expecting Jim Narby to guess Nebraska. I was ready to call him out but Paul beat me to it.

  7. Seth says:

    Air Force would be my guess. They had the fifth-best passing defense in the country last year, and did not manage eight wins.

  8. Seth says:

    Oh wait, Air Force won their bowl against Missouri. Scratch that guess; the remaining choice would be (though it seems a little early, no?) Utah’s Utes.

  9. Seth says:

    But they, again, won more than 8 games.

  10. Jay says:

    Miami (OH) Finished 27th in passing defense and won 1 game.
    San Jose St. finished 22nd in pass defense and won 2 games.
    Army finished 3rd in pass defense and won 5 games.
    Eastern Michigan finished as the Grand Champions in the pass defense category yet failed to win a single game. Wow.

    http://www.ncaa.com/sports/m-footbl/stats/ncaa-m-footbl-fbs-team-pass-defense.html

  11. Jay says:

    No worries!

    NOW we can see that it was Northern Illinois, ranked 30th in scoring defense but garnered only 7 wins.

  12. wildcat6 says:

    george howley had it right in the first comment.

    Northern Illinois was #30 in scoring defense in 2009 with 21.62 point allowed per game. The other non-BCS conference squads were:

    TCU – #6 (12.77 PPG)
    Air Force – #10 (15.69 PPG)
    Boise St. – #14 (17.14 PPG)
    Cent. Mich. – #17 (18.93 PPG)
    Navy – #18 (19.43 PPG)
    Utah – #23 (20.23 PPG)
    Ohio – #28 (21.29 PPG)
    BYU – #29 (21.54 PPG)

  13. Jim Narby is a legend.

  14. Brandon says:

    Seth Navy beat Mizzou not AF,

    Go Navy! Beat AF and Army!!

  15. i dont know i think the sports in these parts is weak to say the least. the college teams are weak and the fans are obese. the tocket prices are robbery and the heat is unbearable. why go?

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