It’s our first football Round Table of the Big 12 Era!
Just like in times past, we answer five key questions about the UCF Knights’ upcoming game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at the Bounce House. Kickoff for the season opener is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday despite Hurricane Idalia, and the game will be shown on FS1.
1. Are there any concerns about the lingering effects of Hurricane Idalia?
Andrew: Not really. UCF does have the benefit of the Nicholson Fieldhouse if they choose to use it and with the storm having stayed in the gulf and making landfall in between Gainesville and Tallahassee, it was never that close to Orlando. The worst should be over today and it should not affect an indoor practice. The team has had plenty of outdoor practice time and with it being an evening game, the heat shouldn’t be a real issue.
Jeff: Surprisingly, no. Based on what we know from our old friend Dani Medina, KSU is planning to fly down as normal, and that was my lone concern:
Spokesperson for UCF Athletics tells me that UCF's campus closure Wednesday DOES NOT affect Thursday's game— DANI MEDINA (@daniellanmedina) August 29, 2023
On Wed., UCF football is still expected to hold late afternoon meetings and an indoor walk-thru. Kent State is still scheduled to fly in Wed. afternoon @fox35orlando
My one real weather concern is the condition of the field. If it’s wet — and we do expect rain all day today and into Thursday — that could slow down the game, which could help Kent State a little bit.
Kyle: For all the hurricane stuff in UCF’s recent history dating all the way back to the national championship year, there’s been a lot of disruption. So far, it doesn’t look like much this time.
Bryson: The UCF campus was spared from the worst of Idalia (my thoughts go to those affected by the storm on the Gulf Coast). So, compared to past years, there will be minimal disruption as far as the game itself. How the game will be played on the other hand will depend on how much rain continues to fall heading into Thursday. If I were any offensive coach for the Knights, I’d make sure I emphasize ball security to the players at any and all points possible, especially RB coach Kam Martin.
Derek: The forecast for kickoff has a 67-ish percent chance of a thunderstorm. That’s the only lingering effect. I think UCF’s players will be so ready to play the first game of the season, that any lightning delays will only delay an inevitable win.
Nick: It doesn’t look like UCF’s campus suffered that much damage. We got lucky. The hurricane itself should have no effect on the game. The only thing weather-related that could affect the game is the chance of there being a thunderstorm that causes a delay. That has happened a ton of times in the past. Heck, I remember hiding under the bleachers several times because of thunderstorms in my first two years as a student. But I also remember we would go on to play all those games and we won them all. In one way or another, I think it’s very unlikely that we won't see a ball being kicked off tomorrow evening.
2. UCF is a 36.5-point favorite. In addition to winning, of course, what would you consider a successful opener?
Andrew: No injuries and the game being in-hand early enough that the second and maybe even the third string players will get a shot on the field. Keep in mind though the redshirt rule, so if you’re going to play someone, don’t do it for just one series. Give them at least a quarter.
Jeff: Same as Drew: No injuries, handle them early, and get the twos and threes some run.
Kyle: Head coach Gus Malzahn has said it time and again during his UCF tenure. The opening week is about learning what your team can do in-game action. For me with Tylan Grable starting at left tackle, I’ll need to see zero sacks from the starting line, young receivers with some targets, and backup quarterback Timmy McClain with five or more passes completed for at least 60 yards for a true success to be declared.
The days of seeing a backup quarterback jumping in at garbage time like Tommy Castellanos did last year only for him to hand the ball off or run for yards need to be over. We keep hearing about how great these receivers are, let’s see them get some game reps and raise their confidence with a big ball or two that allows for runs to grind out the clock more effectively later.
Bryson: I want to see as many different UCF players see the field as possible. For the starters, a success would be showing improvement or maintaining proficiency from last season. People have lauded John Rhys Plumlee’s progress, now is the time to see it in action.
Last season, the Golden Flashes managed to score 20 points in their season opener against Washington and 22 against national champion Georgia. If the Knights' defense prevents Kent State from reaching such points, then that’s a defensive success.
Derek: No injuries. No weather delays. Get as many dressed players on the field as possible. Covering the spread in wet and rainy conditions will be difficult, especially at more than 5 touchdown difference, so a “close” game (win comfortably by 24+) would be fine.
Nick: Everyone else has been saying it and I agree with it: no injuries. We have a lot of talented players on the roster and we’ll need them later in the season when we take on the Big 12’s elite. I am also hoping to see some of the new players in key positions make some splash plays that show potential for the rest of the year. Most importantly, I want JRP to show the improvement many have said he showed in training camp. Last year he struggled throwing the ball, especially when he tried to go deep. If he looks much better in the pocket and connects on a few 20+ yard throws, I’ll be happy.
3. On offense, what player, unit, or trend are you going to pay the closest attention to and why?
Andrew: The offensive line. The line last year often struggled with pass protection and lacked run block explosiveness. With the unit seeing a number of personnel changes as a result of graduation and the portal, it will be interesting to see how quickly this group gels. Bula Schmidt, a transfer from Fresno State, was brought in as a center but has been moved to left guard with Drake Metcalf now in at center. Let’s see if that was the right move. Marcellus Marshall, the new right tackle, gets a chance to play against his former team, which might give him some extra motivation.
Jeff: QBs. I want to see what tools Darin Hinshaw has added to JRP’s toolbox in the passing game. I also want to see Timmy McClain go to work because if JRP gets hurt, he’s the guy. Finally, I want to get a glimpse of the future with Dylan Rizk and/or Xavier Williams.
Kyle: In a year where all we hear about is how important JRP’s health is, the only answer is the O-Line. We can talk about Hinshaw’s philosophies all we want — if the time to execute isn’t there none of it matters. Coach Malzahn has said that the trenches were where they increased the most depth, let’s see if it was enough of an increase.
Bryson: I hate to be repetitive, but I would have to go to the O-Line as well. However, I want to spotlight its importance to the UCF rushing attack, which could see more action on Thursday night if the rain continues to fall. With as deep an RB unit that UCF has, should the Knights succeed regardless of who the QB hands the ball off to means the O-Line had a great game. Another indication of a successful day for the O-Line would be minimizing sacks and tackles for losses.
Derek: O-line or QB is the correct answer here, so for the sake of avoiding repetitiveness, I’ll say the Tight Ends. The RB room is deep, and we have some solid WRs, but TE is pretty thin. Alec Holler returns for his Tommy Callahan-esque 6th year (but my guess is that Alec is working on his master’s...or PhD). After him, Zach Marsh-Wojan returns after playing in all 14 games last season. But perhaps most intriguing is four-star True-Freshman Randy Pittman who is listed second on the depth chart. He has received a few mentions this summer as a freshman who is standing out.
Nick: I’m sorry that I'm not giving a different answer, but for me it will be the O-line and QBs. Everyone has already talked to death about it so I’ll keep it simple. This team doesn't succeed if these two groups don’t play well. they determine where we go. So if during the game I notice them struggling with a certain aspect, it will make me worried for what this could mean when we face more talented teams.
4. What about on defense?
Andrew: How will the team perform with the defensive schemes of new defensive coordinator Addison Williams? Under Travis Williams, the defensive backs played very soft coverage and it hurt them in stopping drives outside of the 20s. It seems like Addison Williams will be more aggressive in that department. Also, it’s worth noting that the LB/DB flex position has been modified into something more of a third safety, which might work out better in the long run because they should be able to float more and not have to rely on having linebacker tackle technique without the size.
Jeff: Run defense. UCF was 77th in the nation against the run last year, but that was only part of the story. Here’s the breakdown by wins and losses:
- In the 9 wins: 128.4 rushing yards allowed per game
- In the 5 losses: 210 rushing yards allowed per game
Note: Take out South Florida’s 298 rush yards and UCF averaged giving up just 107 yards per game on the ground in the other eight games.
So the job is clear: Prove you can stop the run, particularly against a team that was 22nd in the nation in that category last year (albeit with much different personnel than we will see Thursday).
Kyle: Drew’s mention of whether Addison Williams’ style will be more aggressive compared to T-Will’s “bend don’t break” approach is a fine point. However, the ability for any potential aggressive strategy against the traditionally explosive offenses of the Big 12 will require a vast increase in pressure in the pass rush. I’m curious to see if UCF truly has that capability beyond Josh Celiscar and Tre’mon Morris-Brash at the defensive end spot.
Bryson: To Kyle’s point, the defensive end group beyond Morris-Brash and Celiscar is a curiosity, but I think it’s just one aspect of a larger defensive unit that has a lot of new faces on the depth chart this season. While the only new Knights listed as starters are DT Lee Hunter and DB DeJordan Mask, it’s an entirely different story deeper on the depth chart, which should see time in a game like this.
On the D-Line: Pitt transfer Shaun Peterson Jr. and true freshmen Kaven Call and John Walker
At LB: Transfers Isaiah Paul and Rian Davis, plus redshirt freshman TJ Bullard
At DB: True freshman Braeden Marshall and transfers Jireh Wilson, Decorian Patterson, and Fred Davis
A deep defense is going to be important to stand up to the high-powered Big 12 offenses the Knights will meet later down the line. If that is shown Thursday night, then that can assuage any concerns.
Derek: Defensive Tackle is key. Games are won and lost in the trenches, and if a team has quality depth at DT, then they stand an excellent chance of getting another notch in the win column. Ricky Barber could be playing on Sundays in 2024, and (with no apologies to Will Smith) no one has been able to keep Lee Hunter’s name out of their mouth when asked about camp standouts. Behind those two are Mr. Consistent Matthew Alexander and UCF’s highest-rated recruit possibly ever, John Walker. If these four can stay healthy and eat up the opponent’s centers and guards, that can open up the DEs into 1-on-1s with the tackles and free up the LBs to get to RBs.
Nick: Whenever you have a new defensive coordinator, it will always be intriguing. Last year the Knights had a solid defense led by Travis Williams and Addison Williams has some big shoes to fill. The defense has a lot of new players, most of whom Bryson mentioned, and this is their time to show what they are and what they can be. But for me, the main answer for what we should expect from the defense comes from the start of question two where it says UCF is a 36.5-point favorite. On paper, this team is way more talented than Kent State and as a result the offense should score a lot of points and the defense should not allow a lot of points. So to put it simply if the defense gives up a ton of points, let’s say more than 28, then even if we win I’m going to be very nervous for the rest of the season. Because if we struggle to stop Kent State, what happens when we play Kansas State?
5. What’s the biggest concern heading into this game that you want to see addressed?
Andrew: Red zone offense. UCF struggled to score in the red zone more than they should have last year. This was attributable to a number of reasons, including a lack of run-blocking explosiveness from the offensive line, passing accuracy from John Rhys Plumlee, some questionable play-calling, and sometimes the team appearing out of sync. This will be a good opportunity to work on those things ahead of the big road game against Boise State next week.
Jeff: Forcing turnovers. In the #UCFast Era, the defense has relied — and must continue to rely — upon forcing turnovers to maintain success. Any defense on the other side of an offense that moves fast and breaks things has to do so in order to get that offense extra possessions and put the other team on their heels.
However, last year, UCF was 80th in the nation in turnovers forced with 17. That’s not enough. If the defense is going to help the team succeed against an offense-drunk Big 12, they must turn over an inferior opponent like Kent State with alacrity.
Kyle: Passing offense. UCF needs to be slinging it all over the yard and the offensive players I want to see most gassed are the #2 and #3 receivers. If Hinshaw’s strategy to air the ball out more is to be successful, all skill players need to be building that chemistry and familiarity in-game scenarios.
Bryson: I concur with Drew. I got whiplash looking at the Knights’ 5th-ranked red-zone defense and its 109th-ranked red-zone offense last season. However, I don’t know how much of Hinshaw’s new “air it out” strategy is going to pan out should field conditions not be advantageous to it. Thus, a majority of my concern goes to the rushing attack. Can the offensive line show improvement that can portend a better red zone offense? Can they protect John Rhys Plumlee? Will Plumlee himself be able to avoid situations that risk him another injury? These are questions Thursday night gives UCF an opportunity to answer.
Derek: I want to see how all five running backs share the ball. RJ Harvey is the best in the RB room, and Johnny Richardson can break ankles and big gains and any moment. But after that is a log jam of Demarckus Bowman (speed), Jordan McDonald (power), and Marc-Antony Richards (a little of both). Who will be the 3rd running back to play? More importantly, who gets the most carries?
Nick: I’m with Bryson and Drew on this one. UCF struggled in the red zone last year. Those struggles cost them some games that if had gone the other way might have resulted in the AAC title game being held in Orlando instead of New Orleans. I still hate being reminded of what happened in the Louisville and Navy games. Here’s the bottom line: Every time you get the opportunity to score points, you need to capitalize. This team needs to show that they won't waste those chances. And in my opinion, we’re going to need to see some new guys step up. Isaiah Bowser was one of UCF’s go-to guys when they were in the red zone last year, resulting in him scoring 16 touchdowns last year. He’s gone now and someone must now fill the role of go-to red zone guy.
Andrew: Kent State is my mother’s alma mater, but it won’t save them from a Sunshine State beatdown. The Golden Flashes have been gutted after losing their coach last year and this is a new team. They aren’t as good as UCF and haven’t worked with each other nearly as long. The Knights also owe them for the last time they played in 2004 where Kent State embarrassed them 41-24. UCF 56-14.
Jeff: UCF. Big.
Kyle: 52-17 — a Scott Van Pelt-caliber bad beat with a Kent State field goal late in the game.
Bryson: UCF shows the Golden Flashes how much they’ve grown from the days when they once shared a conference. However I think unfavorable conditions will keep UCF’s score down. So, Knights win, 38-13.
Derek: If it’s a ‘dry’ game, then UCF should cover, unless Gus doesn’t want to humiliate Kent State. If it’s raining, then expect more running plays which means the are fewer pass incompletions and fewer clock stoppages, which will speed up the pace of the game while reducing the number of offensive plays teams can run. Long story short, if it’s raining, I don’t expect a cover.
Nick: I will be in that student section during the game. I’m looking forward to having some fun cheering on my team. I won’t lie, the crazy UCF football fan in me wants to be bold and say ‘We’re going to win 100-0 or something.” But I’ll be realistic and say UCF wins it 48-13.