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Five Big Questions for UCF’s 2019 season

All the big questions about the Knights you wanted answers to but were afraid to ask

NCAA Football: AAC Championship-Memphis at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

You might see that headline and immediately wonder, “Hey, didn’t you guys already do something like this?” Well, kind of, yeah. Those were good, too.

But who doesn’t like more questions and speculation? Besides, trying to predict the future is basically half of every sports writer’s job. So here I tackle five (more) big questions facing the UCF Knights.

Who is your most important player on offense this season?

The starting quarterback is the most important offensive player on every football team, but I’ll save that position for another section in this article.

Greg McCrae
Photo: Derek Warden

Instead, I’ll pinpoint running back Greg McCrae, who has experienced quite the meteoric rise to college football superstardom. At this point last year, I doubt anyone outside of Orlando knew about McCrae. Heck, most people in Orlando were probably unfamiliar. He was a lightly used walk-on who transferred from Navy in 2017 and didn’t garner more than 10 carries in a game until November 2018.

Then over the season’s final six contests, he went on a run (pun intended) for the ages:

133 rushing yards per game
8.9 yards per carry
867 yards from scrimmage
8 touchdowns

McCrae enters 2019 as a top-100 player in the sport, according to Sports Illustrated, and a nominee for the Doak Walker Award. He is invaluable for an offense with instability at QB.

Who is your most important player on defense this season?

The snap-decision answer is safety Richie Grant, who joins McCrae on SI’s top 100 list and, If he repeats his 2018 campaign in which he led the team in tackles and snagged six interceptions, should be considered for a first-round NFL Draft pick.

But Grant is not my official answer. And actually, this is a cop-out choice, because I won’t pick just one player; I’ll pick an entire position: UCF’s defensive tackles.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 UCF at USF
Brendon Hayes
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Knights rotated just three DTs for most of last season, and all of them are gone. The plan is to have a committee of 5-6 players — including Indiana transfer Brandon Wilson and 2018 part-timers Kenny Turnier and Mason Cholewa — cover those losses. That group will determine how much, if at all, the Knights’ defense strengthens its most glaring weakness from last year, when it ranked 117th in run D.

What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?

As of Aug. 18, this team doesn’t have a starting quarterback. So, I’d say that’s a pretty big change.

Two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, McKenzie Milton, wants to play football again, but he will spend this season as a coach while continuing to recover from his major right knee injury.

Milton’s replacement and the 2019 fall incumbent, Darriel Mack Jr., broke his left ankle prior to the start of training camp. That has left three men competing for the starting QB gig: Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush, true freshman Dillon Gabriel and redshirt freshman Quadry Jones.

UCF’s QB stable
Photo: Derek Warden

And that seems to be the correct pecking order right now. If there is a slight favorite to take the first snap versus Florida A&M on Aug. 29, it’s the experienced Wimbush. But his issues as a passer — footwork, body positioning, accuracy — remain a work in progress. Gabriel is a more refined passer and seems locked in as UCF’s quarterback of the future.

All three men should see playing time early on as the Knights plow through some soft opposition. But this could be a revolving door, especially since Mack is expected to return at some point.

The Knights had no such worries for most of the past two seasons as Milton spoiled everyone with his sublime excellence.

What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?

People will highlight non-conference match-ups versus a likely ranked Stanford squad and a visit to Pittsburgh. But what is most important to this team is three-peating as American champions.

The most formidable obstacle to that goal is an Oct. 4 trip to face the Cincinnati Bearcats. Although the Knights were picked last month to reign as conference champs again, head coach Luke Fickell’s team received the second most points in that preseason media poll.

A Friday night kickoff on ESPN against UCF? That is going to be wild atmosphere in the ‘Nati.

What is your prediction for W/L record and postseason destination?

Let’s say 12-2, which includes another American title and the Knights’ bowl game. It also assumes that a UCF game won’t be cancelled by a hurricane for the third consecutive year.

UCF can overcome a defeat at Cincy because the rest of their conference schedule doesn’t look imposing at all. They skip Memphis and get both Houston and South Florida at home. Meanwhile, the Bearcats have to play all three of those teams on the road.

Predicting bowl matchups is unequivocally a fool’s errand, but I’ll choose the matchup that would likely occur if the final 2018 College Football Playoff rankings repeat in 2019:

UCF versus the Florida Gators in the Cotton Bowl.