With its bowl eligibility in question most of the season, UCF went into 2012 and stumbled a bit out of the gate. The Knights split their first four games with wins over Akron (56-14) and FIU (33-20) and losses to Ohio State (31-16) and Missouri (21-16). Once league play started though the Knights found their footing ripping off six straight wins from the beginning of October to mid- November. A pair of tight losses to Tulsa, one in the Conference USA championship game, kept the Knights from a league title but the postseason still beckoned.
Thanks to an appeal of an NCAA ruling banning them from bowl eligibility the Knights were able to make their way to the Beef O"Brady's Bowl where they routed Ball State, 38-17. When all was said and done UCF had gone 10-4 on the campaign and an impressive 7-1 in conference action.
OFFENSE: With the move to the American Athletic Conference, UCF will have a tough time repeating the type of success on the field it has enjoyed of late.
One of the biggest reasons to believe the Knights will be up to the challenge is the return of QB Blake Bortles. The junior was sensational as the starter during his sophomore campaign when he completed 62.9 percent of his pass attempts for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns, while being intercepted only seven times. Bortles is also a threat when he moves out of the pocket as he showed last season when he rushed for eight touchdowns. Keeping that level of production up will be key.
"He's only getting better and better as you play the game," head coach George O'Leary said of Bortles. "The one thing he has, which I've always said the good ones have, it's not cockiness, it's just they're extremely confident that they can get things done."
Bortles will certainly be called upon to carry the offense, especially early on as the Knights adjust to life without first-team all-C-USA running back Latavius Murray. Though his presence will be missed, the Knights have a strong replacement candidate with former Miami-Florida back Storm Johnson set to take over. Johnson rushed for 507 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry as Murray's backup last season.
Johnson's season, as with any running back, will depend on the play of the offensive line and in that regard he is in good hands. Three starters return in the trenches highlighted by seniors, and twin brothers, Justin and Jordan McCray.
While the retooled running game looks good, the Knights will still pass more this season with Bortles under center. J.J. Worton is the unquestioned top option at wide receiver after he had team-highs in receptions (44), yards (594) and touchdowns (5) last season. Former quarterback Jeff Godfrey hauled in 39 passes for 429 yards and Breshad Perriman totaled 388 yards as a freshman.
DEFENSE: On defense, UCF was one of the best in Conference USA during 2012. The Knights ranked at the top of the conference in scoring (22.1 ppg) and passing (217.7 ypg) defense while finishing second in total yards allowed (373.6 ypg). With a number of holes to fill and the step up in competition, that could change drastically this year.
There are only four starters returning, and just two of those come in the front seven. Defensive tackle E.J. Dunston is the lone man with starting experience from last season in the trenches. He had 30 tackles and a sack in 2012. However there are some intriguing players fitting in around Dunston, including sophomore Demetris Anderson and ends Thomas Niles and Deion Green. Niles (5.0) and Green (4.0) combined for nine sacks last season, ranking second and third on the team, respectively.
The linebacking corps is even more bare in terms of experience. Junior Terrance Plummer had 108 tackles last season and returns to play in the middle but outside of him there isn't a lot to be excited about. Troy Gray and Mike Easton are slotted as the other starters but combined for just 36 tackles last season, 33 of which were Gray's.
The secondary will certainly miss Kemal Ishmael, but Clayton Geathers could step in and take up the mantle of leader. Geathers was second on the team with 117 tackles last season out of the safety spot. He is joined by fellow junior Brandon Alexander, who returns as a starting cornerback.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Last season the Knights benefited greatly from the kickoff return exploits of Quincy McDuffie who brought back three kicks for touchdowns. Rannell Hall will take over as the primary returner with McDuffie gone. Hall averaged 19.4 yards per return a year ago. Worton returned every punt for the Knights in 2012 and averaged a decent 10.6 yards per return.
The other specialists for UCF will be Shawn Moffitt, who knocked in 10-of-14 field goal attempts, and Caleb Houston, a redshirt freshman that takes over for punter Jamie Boyle.
OUTLOOK: A year ago at this time, UCF was entering a season without much hope as a postseason ban hung over the program. In April the Knights officially won their appeal and will not have to deal with such distractions. When they did have the ban the Knights put together a 10-win season. Without it they may be hard pressed to squeeze out wins with the move to the AAC.
"We play 12 one-game seasons and we line [them] up one at a time. I don't really look at rankings or media predictions or anything else," O'Leary said. "There's going to be people knocking each other off and I think you have as good of an opportunity as anybody else."
The first couple of games this season (vs. Akron, at FIU) shouldn't present daunting challenges. However, the next two games will, with the Knights traveling to play Penn State and a date at home against Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina. UCF begins its first slate of AAC games with road contests against Memphis and Louisville before hosting Connecticut and Houston in back- to-back games. A pair of road games against Temple and SMU sandwiches home games against Rutgers and South Florida on the back end.
Bortles is set to be a star and immediately ingratiate himself to the rest of the AAC. If Johnson can complement Bortles by running well the offense should be just fine. Question marks on defense will loom, but O'Leary has shown an ability to lead strong units. UCF may not be getting another double-digit win season in 2013 but they will certainly be making plenty of noise.