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UNC Football Opponent Preview: UCF, The Peoples’ National Champ

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The Heels’ home opener is a nooner against the country’s best G5 team. Sweet.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl - Auburn v Central Florida Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

When I was initially writing this preview, it turned into 2,000 words of existential crisis on how bad Carolina’s nonconference scheduling luck was. So, we’ll try to steer clear of that— except the Tar Heels draw a team that will inevitably come into Kenan Stadium ranked in the top 20 and on a 15-game winning streak (come at me, UConn and South Carolina State fans).

Scott Frost, who in two years turned a moribund 0-12 UCF program (when this game was scheduled, click link above) into a 13-0 team with a somewhat dubious, yet perfectly reasonable claim to that national championship, is gone. Gone also are one-handed rush linebacker Shaquem Griffin and former Tar Heel Mike Hughes, the latter of whom was a 1st-round pick in last year’s draft.

Replacing Frost is Josh Heupel, former Oklahoma quarterback and Air Raid disciple. In his one year at Missouri, he needed about half a season to get rolling— then the offense was fantastic, notably scoring on three 60+ yard passes at Georgia, then averaging 51 points per game in the back half of Mizzou’s schedule.

The Knights will score points in droves, but hopefully adjusting to Heupel’s offense takes some time.

2017 Season

You’re probably already familiar with their exploits. UCF ran through its schedule 13-0, only once playing a game with a win expectancy (per S&P+) under 73%. They were led by an offense that led the nation with 52 points per game, and finished 2nd in S&P on that side, good for 7th overall.

UCF capped its dream season with a not-as-close-as-the-score-indicates win against Auburn in the Peach Bowl, and then made the whole internet, Nick Saban, and Paul Finebaum mad in claiming a national championship.

If you can make those three entities mad, you’re doing something right.

Series History

Carolina has never played the Knights of Orlando, though the Heels’ two meetings with UCF’s I-4 rival, South Florida, did not go well when their program peaked in the late 2000’s.

Carolina will play a return trip on September 5, 2020, and the two programs will meet for another home-and-home in 2024 and 2025.

UNC Offense vs. UCF Defense

As I said, the Knights’ defense suffered some NFL losses, as Hughes and Griffin went pro. New coordinator and familiar foe Randy Shannon is shifting the Knights’ defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and takes over a defense that was really just okay despite its talent. They don’t return anybody with more than two sacks from last year’s team.

UCF finished 74th in S&P+ on that side of the ball, but returns potential All-AAC talent at each level— DT Trysten Hill (#9), your prototype hard-nosed inside LB Pat Jasinski (#56), and FS Kyle Gibson (#25) are all preseason members of the 1st team in Athlon’s preview.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Auburn v Central Florida
Jasinski
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Carolina offense should have a decent day. All of UCF’s returning experience is centered around the middle of the field, so attacking converted linebackers and DE’s (in the scheme shift) with the outside running game should be the modus operandi early on. Assuming an upright offensive line still exists, look for the outside zone and QB read games to click.

Isolating young corners against Carolina’s receivers will be the second focus, as the Heels should try to push it downfield in 1-on-1’s (assuming part one of the gameplan works). This will be the first time Anthony Ratliff-Williams will not be tasked with beating a team’s best defender, so he is going to be huge. If Carolina can make plays vertically while staying on/ahead of schedule with the run, look out.

This was a defense predicated on havoc plays last year— 24 turnovers, 27 sacks, and 77 (!) tackles for loss. Expect a more conservative approach under Shannon— their best move may be to play bend-but-don’t-break, because...

UNC Defense vs. UCF Offense

Oh boy. McKenzie Milton returns at quarterback, and he only went for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns a year ago, while adding 613 and 8 scores on the ground. They return literally 99.2% of their 500 carries from last year, including leading rusher Adrian Killins (6.5 YPC, 10 TD), explosive Otis Anderson (494 yards on just 75 touches), and four more guys who averaged at least 18 rushing yards per game.

Surely they lose something through the air then, right? Well, yes! Tre’Quan Smith took his 1175 yards and 13 TD on 19.2 yards per catch to the NFL, where he was drafted in the 3rd round by the Saints. Tight end Jordan Akins was also drafted in the third round, by the Texans.

What does this mean? Guys who were recruited to an 0-12 program had NFL talent. Got to love Florida recruits, man.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Auburn v Central Florida
Snelson
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Dredrick Snelson (#5) had a nice sophomore breakout, with 695 yards and 8 scores. Gabriel Davis, Anderson (who is a WR/RB hybrid, more or less, think early T.J. Logan), and Marlon Williams combined for over 1,000 yards on 74 catches as freshmen.

With Milton at the helm, there is enough continuity in the offense to assume that the transition from Scott to Heupel won’t miss much of a beat. The O-line loses three starters, but that will be offset by their playmakers’ quick-strike ability and Milton’s legs.

I...I don’t know how you scheme to stop this offense, at least the 2017 version. You have to commit a linebacker to Milton, the backs are explosive enough to be gone by the time they hit the second level, and their receivers are talented, fast, and experienced.

Outlook

The Heels’ offense will get theirs. The Knights offense will get theirs, and then some. You don’t like to wish injuries on people, but maybe Milton sprains an ankle running out a meaningless third down up 31 points in one of the first two games.

Otherwise, this could be 2012 ECU ugly from a defensive standpoint. This is not the type of game that Carolina has shown it can win under Larry Fedora.

UCF 55, Carolina 37.