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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Central Florida

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. One wonders the extent of the unbreakable will and body of Kevin Smith, who obliterated all preceding notions of the limits of running back endurance with a painful-to-contemplate 450 carries as a junior, then wisely limped off to the pros before he could be slated for the glue factory (Orlando Glue! Made From People!). Forget the yards, which come naturally with this workload: Smith went over 25 carries eleven times, and averaged 36 during UCF’s seven-game conference win streak to end the regular season, during which he also scored 18 touchdowns and the team averaged 43 points.

Philip Smith: Remember him before he turns purple.
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That’s another thing that lightens the impact a little: defenses from Marshall, UAB, SMU, UTEP and Tulsa didn’t lay all that many malicious hands or helmets on him. If there’s a bright side to losing one of the top statistical backs in D-I history, and a couple first team all-C-USA linemen with him, it’s the strong likelihood that the snuggly soft defenses of Conference USA will be nearly as forgiving toward new tailback Phillip Smith, who got in some hits during blowout time in wins over Memphis, Marshall and SMU. The Knights ran on two-thirds of their snaps last year, and with the new quarterback (see below) are still likely to pound it as often as they think they can, but for the sake of balance and the future of the whirlpool, that number won’t approach 670 attempts again.

The least you should know about Central Florida...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 10-4 (8-1 C-USA; 1st/East; Champion)
2003-07: 25-37 (20-22 C-USA/MAC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
2004-08: 87 • 71 • 72 • 61 • 56
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (5 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
The team's fortunes in Conference USA have followed Joe Burnett's: in 2005, Burnett picked off five passes in a five-game winning streak to end the regular season and ran two punts back for touchdowns in the Knights' from-nowhere run to the league championship game. He was disappointingly empty on both counts as a sophomore (just one INT), missing the all-conference team altogether while UCF plummeted to 4-8. Last year's return to the postseason coincided with Burnett's return to freshman form: six picks, a punt return score in the C-USA Championship, another first team all-conference vote and a nice boost to his draft status. Unless the on-again, off-again bit is a cyclical thing in election years.
The Short-Timers
UCF is the beacon of upward mobility among the mid-majors: it's geographically convenient for the Big East, in a major metro market, in an infamously talent-rich state; it has a new on-campus stadium that outdrew Miami and a slew of other major schools in its first year; it's grown into a huge school in 40 years; and it's a proven entity competitively in a very short stay in C-USA. Unless the administrative point men are completely politically inept (they've massively expanded the enrollment, moved into a solid position in I-A football and built a new stadium, right?), the next, inevitable round of major conference expansion everyone is so certain about will include the Knights – although it would probably help if they came up with a more prominent basketball team. And change the uniforms, please (white on gold? What is this, prom?)
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* According to Rivals.

What’s the Same. There’s not much glory in leading C-USA against the pass (no other defense in the league finished in the top half of the country in pass efficiency D), but the Knights were well ahead of the curve and should be again: they intercepted more passes (24) than all but two other defenses in the country, put both starting corners on the all-C-USA team and get back five DBs who finished among the top seven tacklers on the team, including the top two. Joe Burnett and Johnell Neal tied for the conference lead with six picks apiece; Burnett has thirteen in three years and all things considered is probably the best athlete anywhere in C-USA.

Chickens and Eggs. Ah, but UCF is facing the exact opposite situation on the defensive line, which led the conference in sacks, was second against the run and will be replacing its best player, all-conference end Leger Douzable, and another three-year starter, ex-Canadien wrestling champ Keith Shologan. Which came first: the front line pressure that regularly kept the heat off the secondary, or the coverage that gave the rush all that time? I think it’s better for the Knights if it’s the latter – the offense is much less likely to build the kind of leads that let the rush tee off in must-pass situations than it was last year, or to milk those leads at the ends of games without K. Smith. This D shouldn’t have the luxury of allowing 27 points per game again.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. One of the two or three quarterbacks duking it out to replace one-year wonder Kyle Israel is redshirt freshman Joe Weatherford of the buttery hamlet of Land O’Lakes. Just guess who he’s related to. Go on, just guess...

During individual drills, current starting quarterback junior Michael Greco was sharp throwing short passes, but mostly erratic throwing the football on deeper out patterns, as many of his passes sailed high and wide, and he couldn’t seem to get in rhythm with his wide receivers.

Redshirt freshman Joe Weatherford was sharp on underneath routes, but missed on the deeper outs, just as Greco did. Weatherford, who normally throws a tight, pretty pass, had many of his balls wobble and flutter, and he couldn’t seem to get on the same page as many of the receivers.

Redshirt freshman Andy Slowik may have been the most accurate of the quarterbacks in these drills, as he showed plenty of velocity on his passes, and certainly showed enough arm to throw the out pattern safely. Fellow redshirt freshman Nate Tice seemed to struggle on intermediate and longer routes in the one-on-one and individual portions.
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Yes. If the name didn’t give it away, the description of wobbling and fluttering deep routes and struggling to get on the same page as his receivers was a dead giveaway. If only UCF and FSU played – underthrowing every route deeper than ten yards could be a heartwarming, family affair, which is what Pop Warner had in mind, I think. With a little forsight, the rag-armed Weatherford-on-Weatherford action could have saved football from corporate greed hounds who lost sight of the soul of the sport decades ago. Alas, the schedule-makers hate family values, and America – UCF plays USF on a Friday night, which is going to get on everyone’s nerves since they could be known less-aggravatingly as ‘Orlando’ and ‘Tampa,’ respectively, and then Miami. But no ‘Noles.

Actually, the state has been lousy with Weatherfords for more than a decade – there was Will in the nineties (now a state rep), then Sam (played at Fordham, moved to China), Drew and Joe, and now John, who’ll enroll at West Georgia in the fall under Drew’s old FSU quarterbacks coach, Daryl Dickey, after missing his entire senior year to a knee injury. Little bro Stevie will apparently quarterback Land O’ Lakes High through 2010, extending the Weatherford run there into its third decade, almost uninterrupted. Maybe one day one of them will be president.

Tice has a pedigree, too: his dad is Mike Tice, ex-Saints tight end and deposed coach of the Vikings. And neither one of these born-and-bred types could beat out a juco mutt like Michael Greco?

Central Florida on You Tube. Every now and then, you have to suck it up and check out what the kids are up to. Here, UCF film students provide a perfect blend of aspiring cinema cliché: unbearable pretension, banal social commentary, less-than-shoestring budgets, utter weirdness, Stan Getz, huge amounts of satirically-deployed pasta and more than a few moments of surprising competence:

Shirly’s Victory Spaghetti. You only wish you’d thought of it when you were a junior (you did put it on letterboxing, right? Cuz otherwise it’s completely ruined).

See Also: That kid from the Facebook group rides his bike into Lake Clair for Homecoming. ... I find every person appearing in this video particularly loathsome. ... Mere questions and common decorum cannot contain George O’Leary. ... And they start making zombies pretty young these days. Class of 2028...that’s about the time the structurally unsound stadium will come crashing down in a hail of death, yes? Only the undead will survive.

Hey, it’s all good: you may have beaten us by 50 points, but at least I’m not at Notre Dame right now.
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Best-Case: The Knights have three tough but not outrageous non-conference games, with Boston College, South Florida and Miami. UCF will probably be an underdog in all three, and given the hellacious beating it took last year at the hands of a mostly intact USF team, should probably write off an upset against the Bulls. But B.C. and Miami are both ushering in new quarterbacks amid a lot of uncertainty, and one of them can potentially be had if the Knights show up on defense and control the clock, etc. But the three biggest games are the midseason run against Tulsa and East rivals East Carolina and Southern Miss. UCF needs to win two of those three to come out in front of another conference championship race; even with a lot of key attrition, the rest of C-USA is still vulnerable enough the Knights could steal another nine-win regular season.

Worst-Case: Quarterback issues could easily leave the offense in a lurch, with no stars to bail it out this time – sans Kevin Smith, the returning playmakers are a pair of mediocre receivers with a potentially disastrous situation under center. It would be beyond disappointing if UCF slipped below .500 in-conference after convincingly running off eight wins last year. Given the non-conference heavies, though, just breaking even within C-USA won’t be good enough for a bowl bid. Because Tulsa, ECU, USM and Memphis are conceivable losses before sniping from the bottom of the league even comes into the picture, five wins doesn’t seem too off the mark.

Non-Binding Forecast: Throw a Blanket on 'em or Bust. None of the prognostoscenti to date thinks UCF will repeat as East champion without its offensive engine, but the Knights remain in some respect the overall favorite along with East Carolina because of their experience on defense. Based on the quick turnaround under George O’Leary, they certainly project as one of the top three or four teams in the conference again. I don’t think there’s any chance to make noise in the polls – go ahead and consider the South Florida, BC and Miami games losses until further notice – but UCF can split the four toughest C-USA games and claw its way back into the championship, as long as it beats the right teams to hold on in a tiebreaker. It’s going to happen with defense this time, though, or it’s not going to happen: even if they win eight in the regular season, the margins won’t be as wide as last year’s. Without looking too closely at the Pirates, I’m higher on East Carolina (ECU also has nine back on defense, and a quarterback, and emphatically dealt the Knights their only conference loss last year), so 7-5 and second place for UCF seems like a good bet to me.