The Wolverines wolfed down their first cupcake in Week 1, walking over the Warriors of Hawaii, 63-3. This Saturday, Michigan should indulge in another creamy pastry, this one the Knights of UCF. The Knights are fresh off an 0-12 season, joining Kansas as the only FBS teams to be winless in 2015, and aim to rebuild under new head coach Scott Frost.
Our Trevor Woods introduced UCF to you yesterday, and, today, we take a deeper dive into the Knights team that will travel to Ann Arbor. To do so, we spoke with Chas Short (@CFBAsterisk), who is a senior editor for Underdog Dynasty (@underdogdynasty)— SB Nation’s site that covers the AAC among other Group of 5 conferences — and writes about the Knights. We asked him a variety of questions to learn more about UCF, including why the program bottomed out last season, whether Frost’s history with the Wolverines will play a role in this matchup, how UCF’s personnel fit with Frost’s uptempo offensive schemes, and what UCF will need to do to surprise the nation and upset Michigan on Saturday. Make sure to scroll down and read his answers below!
Maize n Brew: UCF plummeted from a 12-1 and Fiesta Bowl-winning campaign in 2013 to a winless season in 2015, leading to George O'Leary's resignation as head coach. How did the Knights descend from one of the peaks of the college football landscape to the base so rapidly? Why did everything fall apart last year?
Chas Short: Lackluster preparation followed by ridiculously bad injury luck and a lack of quality depth at key positions, including quarterback. In 2015, O'Leary was also UCF’s AD and delegated more and more of his coaching duties, including to head-coach-in-waiting Brent Key. This was a mistake. Add to it the fact that veteran offensive coordinator Charlie Taafe had retired. There was a leadership void, and it seems to have translated into a lack of good preparation and a lack of success on the field. Then, the injuries came. Constantly. UCF QB Justin Holman, who had shown such promise the previous season, was injured early in the game against Stanford. No other QB played well. After missing a long stretch, Holman came back and played horrendously. The offensive line was also constantly shuffled, a result of both injuries and poor performance. Running back Will Stanback, whom I had predicted would be a star for the Knights in 2014, was lackluster in very limited playing time and booted from the team. Few positions had continuity. Many freshman had to play. They made many freshman mistakes. All of this was a terrible combination.
And that is how you go from winning your conference two years in a row to going winless.
MnB: Scott Frost was hired as UCF's new head coach to replace George O'Leary. Of course, Frost has some history with Michigan. He quarterbacked Nebraska's 1997 team, the one that shared the national title with the Wolverines, and was and still is very vocal about Nebraska being the better the team that year. Do you think Frost will channel that history, that desire to prove that his team was better than the Wolverines, into motivation for his Knights? Or is this just a narrative spun by the media for headlines?
CS: I haven’t seen anything to make me believe that is being channeled in any serious way. Strikes me as an attempt to impose a narrative on the game.
[Ed-DH: After Chas submitted his responses to the Q&A, he sent a follow-up email noting that he had just seen this quote from Frost in the Orlando Sentinel regarding this topic:
After 19 years, hardcore Wolverines still thirst to see Frost punished this Saturday in Ann Arbor.
"That's fine if it's a narrative. I don't think my players are going to care at all," Frost said. "There are probably some people that care."
This is all just fun and games, of course, until someone loses 83-0. Which is not to say mighty Michigan would run it up on a bunch of Central Floridians who were in diapers in 1997.
MnB: Scott Frost spent the past seven seasons at Oregon, where he was the Ducks' offensive coordinator for three of them. Frost intends to bring the same offensive schemes he used in Eugene to Orlando, which means speed, tempo, and urgency. How does UCF's roster fit within those schemes? Will the offense take off running with its personnel? Or will there be transition costs in installing the offense?
CS: Frost’s offensive scheme wants different personnel than the old school O’Leary scheme, which wanted players who were bigger than the other guy’s players. Frost places a premium on fast, shifty guys. And smaller is OK.
Look at running backs on UCF’s depth chart, for example. There’s quite a contrast between the O’Leary recruits and the Frost recruits. O’Leary’s recruits were Dontravious Wilson (5’10” and 210 pounds) and Taj McGowan (6’1” and 202 pounds), while Frost’s recruits were Jawon Hamilton (5’9” and 190 pounds) and Adrian Killins (5’8” and 155 pounds). I’ve constrained myself here to the running backs who are likely to see the field, but this observation holds true to the other RBs on the roster. Note that Hamilton, the freshman, led the team in both carries and rushing yards last week.
There will clearly be some transition costs. Holman is not the ideal fit for Frost’s offense. He did not look comfortable for much of the game against South Carolina State last week.
MnB: UCF quarterback Justin Holman had a junior season he'd like to forget in 2015. He completed just 50.8 percent of his passes for 1,379 yards (5.5 YPA), seven touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In fact, he's thrown 14 picks in each of his last two seasons. Though Holman avoided throwing a pick in the 2016 opener against South Carolina State, he seems to have issues with his accuracy and turnovers. What is the reason for this? Do you think that Holman will be able to prevent these issues from flaring up against Michigan, who was first in QB rating allowed in 2015 and had two pick-sixes last week?
CS: Holman cratered in 2015, but had looked promising as a sophomore in 2014 (223/392 for 2,952 yards and 23 touchdowns, along with the 14 interceptions you noted). As I’ve mentioned, his play last year never bounced back following his return from injury. And he was hampered by a poor offensive line. He has an incredibly strong arm, but struggles throwing a pass with some touch. That isn’t doing him any favors. Last week he played a poor, inaccurate first half and a competent second half. I’m still not sure whether we have ‘2014 Holman’ or ‘2015 Holman.’ As a Knights fan, I worry about his performance on Saturday. I doubt he’s suddenly become steady in a week.
MnB: While Justin Holman is a senior, UCF appears to be flooded with underclassmen at the offensive skill positions. The Knights' two leading rushers (C.J. Jones and Taj McGowan) and two leading receivers (Tre'Quan Smith and Tristan Payton) were just freshmen in 2015. How much improvement is expected from these units now that they're sophomores? And who is the weapon Michigan should fear most?
CS: Your observation is correct. The wide receivers are particularly young and show tremendous promise. Tre’quan Smith is the most dangerous weapon and was really one of the few bright spots last year. He was honored as the American Athletic Conference’s Rookie of the Year and had the best freshman season of any UCF WR, ever. All of this while hampered by bad quarterback play.
Last week, the Knights were led on the ground by true freshman Jawon Hamilton. I have him pegged for greatness, but I don’t see the breakout game coming this week. Still, I see him as the more significant factor for the Knights at running back.
MnB: Last week, Michigan ran the ball down Hawaii's throat, gaining 306 yards on 39 carries (7.85 YPC). This allowed the Wolverines to stay ahead of the chains, keep third downs manageable (7-for-7 on third downs), and not put pressure on their first-time starting quarterback, Wilton Speight. Michigan likely will want to replicate this against UCF, and they might because the Knights return only one of their four leading tacklers from a defensive line that was 113th in adjusted line yards and 118th in adjusted sack rate in 2015. Does UCF have the defensive front to win the war in the trenches against Michigan?
CS: The Knights are now in a 3-4, after years of using a 4-3 defense in the O’Leary era.
The short answer: we don’t know much about what UCF has on the defensive line yet. The Knights have a complete rebuild up front. Junior Jamiyus Pittman is back though, and I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen so far from freshman Trysten Hill.
MnB: While UCF is rebuilding the front of its defense, the Knights return lots of experience in the back seven. However, the Knights were 108th in Pass Defense S&P+ and 127th in QB rating allowed in 2015. Do you think this experience will turn into production on pass defense this season? And how do you think UCF will try to shut down Michigan's receivers in Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt?
CS: I’m a skeptic when it comes to UCF’s secondary. They were torched early and often last year. Even with a year of experience, I’m doubtful about their ability to shutdown Michigan’s wide receivers.
Still, Shaquill Griffin has shown he can make plays and had an excellent interception last week. Look also for T.J. Mutcherson, the transfer a couple years back from Iowa State.
MnB: The odds are long for UCF as Michigan currently is a 35.5-point favorite according to the Vegas sportsbooks, but what are the three keys for the Knights if they want to upset Michigan in Ann Arbor?
CS: In many ways, it’s your typical upset recipe:
- If the Knights are going to win, they need to force turnovers and capitalize on Michigan mistakes. And they need to do so while playing mistake free. The Knights can’t afford to miss opportunities.
- Justin Holman needs to calm down and step up. This young receiving corps is great, and if Holman can do his part, the Knights will be in a much better position.
- UCF has to score touchdowns in the red zone. Last week, drives stalled, and the Knights had to settle for field goals far too often. Against South Carolina State. Not good.
MnB: What is your prediction for Michigan-UCF? Who wins? What is the final score?
CS: I love my team, but I’ve got to be realistic about their flaws. I see it as a relatively easy win for Michigan. Let’s assume several field goals after UCF drives stall. And then let’s assume a touchdown as a result of a turnover or in garbage time.
I’ll call it a Michigan win, 42-16.
There, it is! Chas predicts an easy win for the Wolverines, but not one that sees Michigan covering the 35.5-point spread. What do you think of Chas’ thoughts on the UCF Knights and Saturday’s matchup? Feel free to share them in the comments below!
And we must not forget to give Chas a big thank you for taking the time to break down the Knights for us. Make sure to give him a follow on Twitter (@CFBAsterisk) and read his UCF coverage on Underdog Dynasty in the lead up to Saturday and beyond.