The next level. That’s where Central Florida’s football program hopes to go — both this weekend, and when it hosts No. 12 South Carolina on Saturday.
The Knights are 3-0 for the first time in 25 years after coming off a win at Penn State two weekends ago. Now, they’ll host a top 15 SEC team noon Saturday on ABC. It will be the program’s first game on network television. UCF hopes to beat its second nationally ranked opponent in program history.
It’s a huge game for a rising program, and USC is well aware. Steve Spurrier said he expects the Knights to be “sky high” this weekend. To find out what more to expect, Paul Tenorio, UCF beat writer for the Orlando Sentinel, graciously answered a few questions about the Knights. Read Tenorio’s take on USC’s upcoming opponent below.
1) What’s the feeling around Central Florida’s program after its 3-0 start?
Well, I think there’s a lot of excitement down in Orlando. That Penn State big was big because it eliminated some of the doubt that is prone to creep up in UCF fans. They’ve seen the program lose a lot of winnable games against bigger programs. This team is one that is supposed to take them to a new level (and it brings back all but three starters next year), so to get that win has upped the anticipation for what this program can do in the next two years, and maybe what that would mean for the long-term future.
2) What were UCF’s expectations entering its first season in the AAC?
They felt like they could contend right away for a conference championship. Looking at the rest of the AAC, certainly Louisville was the favorite, but after that Rutgers and Cincinnati are teams UCF felt it could compete with as the next-best challenge for the title. With an offense that can go toe-to-toe with a lot of teams out there, the biggest questions were around the defense. It’s been a mixed bag so far on that side of the ball, but at 3-0 you lose some of those worries and those conference championship goals start to look a little more realistic.
3) It’s a sellout inside Bright House Networks Stadium, and the first time UCF will be on ABC. How important is this game for the program?
It’s got the chance to be huge. If they were to pull off the upset over South Carolina, UCF is stepping into uncharted territory. They’ve been in the Top 25 before, but have not been 4-0 since 1988 – when they competed in NCAA Div. II. You win that game, and now people are looking down the schedule and pointing to the two main roadblocks from an undefeated season: Louisville and Rutgers.
On a larger scale, winning a game like this is huge for a program trying to sell its brand to a large audience. Playing at noon on ABC with a nationwide audience is a chance to inform people about UCF – the second largest school in the country sitting in a top-20 market. They’re still not well known, people don’t understand how fast this school has grown. This game can start to help with that. It’s big for recruiting, it’s big for further realignment. A win only adds to the benefits.
4) How do you expect UCF to try to block Jadeveon Clowney?
Against Penn State, they kept extra blockers in to protect Blake Bortles. That line was playing without starting left tackle Torrian Wilson. He should be back this week, but I’d still expect the scheme to focus on trying to manage Clowney’s impact on the game.
What does that mean? Likely a tight end lined up next to the tackle closest to Clowney, and maybe even an H-Back in the formation, as well. UCF’s running backs are also capable of staying in to help protect before getting out into routes if South Carolina is only sending four or five rushers.
The Knights can do so in part because they have a quarterback capable of reading coverages and picking out where he should go with the ball, and a wide receiver corps capable of winning match-ups even when outnumbered in the secondary. They were able to win those 1-on-1 battles against Penn State, the question is if they can do it against a more athletic Gamecocks secondary.
5) UCF’s defense ranks 14th nationally with 12.7 points per game. What’s the key to scoring against the Knights?
I think the most important factor in this game may be how well South Carolina runs the ball. UCF is inexperienced all across the defense, and they’ve shown vulnerabilities in the run game. If the Gamecocks can run the ball, that will be big for a variety of reasons: 1) It keeps UCF’s offense off the field, 2) It wears down a thin front-seven and 3) It sets up an inexperienced secondary to give up the big play.
UCF has been solid so far in keeping things in front of them, but if South Carolina forces the Knights to bring extra defenders into the box and can set up the play-action, they could break this game open.