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UConn Football 2014 Opponent Preview: UCF Knights

Fresh off of the best season in program history, the UCF Knights have lost talent at some key positions but they should still be among the class of the conference this year.

They call him Knightro.
They call him Knightro.
Christian Petersen

Before football season starts, we're going to preview each and every one of our opponents for this season. We kick it off today with the reigning AAC and Fiesta Bowl champion, the UCF Knights.

Head Coach: George O'Leary (11th season, 72-56 record)

2013 Regular Season Record: 11-1 (W- Fiesta Bowl vs. Baylor, 52-42)

Key losses: QB Blake Bortles, RB Storm Johnson, RG Justin McCray, LG Jordan McCray

UConn Gameday Info: Saturday, November 1 at Rentschler Field, it will be the Homecoming game.

I had a chance to speak with two of the UCF writers for Underdog DynastyCarson Ingle and Harry Nolan, who were kind enough to answer a few questions for me:

1. UCF had an amazing run last year, how many starters have they lost from that team and do they have the talent to replace it?

Ingle: UCF loses Bortles, Storm Johnson, and three starters on the offensive line, but returns 15 starters.  This is without a question the deepest defense in UCF history.  Third string DBs on this team would have probably started for O'Leary's first Knights team in 2004.

Nolan: Combined Bortles and Johnson accounted for well over 50% of UCF's offense last year. The McCrae twins, Jordan and Justin are in the NFL and while some may point to the loss of three offensive lineman as a big loss to UCF, Torian Wilson and Joey Grant are still there to guide the younger guys. Plus Brent Key is one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation. The defense did not lose anyone. Yes the Knights this year do have enough talent.

2. So you just named a starting QB after the loss of Blake Bortles, can you tell us a little bit about Pete DiNovo?

Ingle: Pete DiNovo redshirted last year. When backup QB Tyler Gabbert left during the season, the coaches tabbed fellow freshman Justin Holman to be Bortles' backup, not DiNovo.  Throughout fall camp though, DiNovo has been described as the more consistent performer, but he is certainly a bit of an unknown.

Nolan: Pete DiNovo is a redshirt freshman, who is very accurate. I think he will be solid this year, but won't remind anyone of Bortles as he is more of a pocket passer. However, Charlie Taaffe's spread offense will help ease the transition. He has decent size at 6'2, but his most impressive attribute is his accuracy. The offense calls for quick bubble screens and with the loaded receiving corps, DiNovo should be fine.

I thought Justin Holman should have gotten the starting job over him since Holman is a dual threat QB, but I am confident that DiNovo will be solid.  He will also have options in Rannell Hall, Breshad Perriman, William Stanback, and JJ Worton. Those experienced players will help DiNovo with the offense.

3. What are the expectations for this season in UCF-land?

Ingle: While I believe the quarterback situation keeps expectations somewhat measured, the fanbase did experience its first jolt of big time football success last year and Knights fans want more.  The expectation is that UCF wins the American and gets the G5 access bowl spot.  Ending the season celebrating a Peach Bowl win over an SEC opponent on New Year's Eve in Atlanta could match the excitement level of 2013.

Nolan: The expectations vary. Clearly the loss of Bortles and Storm hurt and UCF will take a step back. Most pundits have us finishing middle of the pack to third this year. I could see us losing to Missouri and Penn State out of conference then losing to Houston in conference. I don't see anyone outside of Houston that threatens the Knights on our AAC schedule. Yes ECU has a great offense, but I am not sold on their defense. UCF doesn't play Cincinnati this year, thankfully.

The defense will carry UCF this season. I think the experience and talent especially on defense will lead them to a second place finish.

4. What will be the strengths and weaknesses of this years team?

Ingle: Certainly, defensive depth is the strength, particularly the secondary. UCF also has one of the best wide receiver groups in the country.  While quarterback is an obvious weakness or question mark, there are concerns along the offensive line as well.

Nolan: Get to know the wide receivers. They are big time playmakers. Some will know JJ Worton from his catch against Temple or Rannell Hall from his heroic game against Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. The key is Breshad Perriman. He is quick, but he runs deep routes really well which allows UCF to throw those quick bubble screens.

The weakness is at quarterback. DiNovo is young and inexperienced. He will struggle early and I fear that this will cost the Knights some games. He is not as mobile as Bortles was which will force him to be a pocket passer. Offensive Coordinator Charlie Taaffe has a tendency with young quarterbacks to be very conservative. I expect UCF not to be as explosive this year due to the young quarterback.

5. Who is the player to watch on offense, defense?

Ingle: On offense, I think it is crucial to watch William Stanback. He has said he wants to go down as the greatest running back in UCF history and will get ample opportunity to carry the load on offense.  Defensively, I see end Thomas Niles as a critical piece. If he can be a top flight pass rusher, the Knights defense will be as good as advertised.

Nolan: On offense it's Rannell Hall. He had a breakout performence in the Fiesta Bowl, catching two touchdowns and making Baylor's secondary look foolish. He is one of the fastest wide receivers in the country. I know he has never had a season of over 1,000 yards, but he is a special talent. He is poised this year for a breakout season.

On defense, it's linebacker Terrance Plummer. He is the best player that most people have never heard of. He is finally getting recognition for his play as he was named to several awards lists. He is the heart and soul of the team. In fact he helped coach the defense during the Fiesta Bowl. The man is a ballhawk with 110 tackles last year and saved UCF's season with some big stops. This year I expect huge things from him.

6. What do you make of the rumors that Coach O'Leary may retire soon?

Ingle: I don't have a clear motive for O'Leary retiring following the Penn State game as Bruce Feldman reported was being considered.  That said, all information I have received points to 2014 being his last season as head coach. He could always surprise us, but I believe O'Leary wants to pave the way for assistant Brent Key to take over sooner rather than later.

Nolan: I don't think he will retire after the Penn State game. O'Leary is many things, but a quitter he is not. I don't think he will walk away mid-season. However, he will retire at the end of the year. The wheels are already in motion for his replacement as assistant Brent Key has quickly risen up the ranks on the UCF staff. In fact he was just named assistant head coach this year. I think it is clear that O'Leary is going to name Key his successor and will mentor him throughout the year.

7. What's your guess for UCF's win total this year?

Ingle: I think nine wins is a very fair benchmark to have.  Breaking in a new QB against Penn State and at Missouri is a tall order.  Road weeknight games at Houston and at ECU also loom as potential pitfalls.

Nolan: I think 8-9 wins this year for UCF

There's no mistaking that this is one of the most talented teams on UConn's schedule. But, with question marks on offense this is the kind of game that UConn might be able to win this year if they can find a way to make stops and keep it close with some big plays offensively. Our secondary will have their hands full with this talented group of wide receivers but if the front seven can generate some pressure on the first-year starter DiNovo, maybe we can make some things happen. At the very least UConn fans should expect to see a better game than the 62-17 embarrassment from last year.

For a much, much better and more detailed preview of the UCF Knights, check out Bill Connelly's Big 2014 UCF Preview.