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UCF’s Checklist vs. Memphis

We’ll see if the Knights and Tigers give us another classic showdown reminiscent of each of their past three meetings

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 03 Memphis at SMU
Memphis quarterback Brady White.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is a lot to watch for in Saturday’s game between the UCF Knights and the Memphis Tigers. But for UCF and its fans, the top-line concern is pretty obvious.

1. Can the Knights finally cut out those pre-snap penalties?

Josh Heupel flashed a broad smile on Monday when he was asked yet again about this current scourge upon his football team. He knew the question was coming; he faced them during the bye week, too. His responses were confident but vague. He didn’t explain what exactly had been done to nip this problem in the bud, only that action has been taken to alleviate it, his players understand their responsibilities, they are focused, etc., etc.

But the truth is no one — including Heupel — knows if UCF will add another eight or 11 false starts penalties to their current count of 25 through three games. Remember that pre-snap penalties were oft-discussed in the wake of the East Carolina game as well, and matters only grew worse.

So, have the Knights done what is necessary to not move early on offense and, as a result, kill their tempo and shrink their playbook? Everyone will just have to wait and see.

For what it’s worth, here is what Heupel said Thursday when asked about his comfort level with Matthew Lee as his center. Lee grew up just a few miles from the Bounce House and has been a UCF fan since childhood.

“Matt is going to be not just a good player but a great football player,” Heupel said. “He cares about wearing the black and gold as much as anybody that we have inside of our program. ... Some things didn’t go right here the first couple of weeks. He’s done a lot of really great things as well and expect him, as he has the last couple of weeks, to push forward, keep getting better. We have great confidence in Matt as our center.”

2. Can the Knights take advantage of Brady White’s bad decisions?

I phrase that question as if White has already thrown a couple of interceptions as I write on Friday. But that’s because what stands out to me in watching White this season is how quickly he can shift from perfect to puzzling.

White, a sixth-year senior, has a 70.8 completion rate, seven touchdowns and 576 passing yards. However, he has committed four turnovers in two games, and most of them have a face-palm quality.

White’s first turnover came versus Arkansas State in the third quarter of a one-score game. He scrambled to his left, away from a blitzer, and tried to connect with a receiver about 15 yards downfield along the near sideline. Two problems: That receiver was standing out of bounds anyway. And there was a defensive back right in front of him whom White apparently didn’t see. Easy interception.

Last week against SMU, White recorded a similar INT, once again failing to see a defender standing right next to his intended target. White tried to hit tight end Sean Dykes on a seam route, but the pass was (a.) short (b.) closer to a linebacker than Dykes. That scuttled a possible scoring drive.

White’s most egregious error was a soft fumble in SMU territory while getting sacked within the final 90 seconds of a 27-27 battle. The Mustangs would kick the game-winning field goal on the ensuing drive.

UCF’s 12 takeaways are the second-most in the FBS, and it’s a near certainty that it will add to that total because of White. However, the Knights need to start cashing in more of those gifts; they have scored on just five of those 12 extra possessions (three touchdowns, two field goals).

3. Damonte Coxie. Coxie? Bueller?

Coxie was the Tigers’ leading receiver in the past two seasons, racking up more than 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns. He is showing no signs of let-up through two games this year as he has caught 16 passes for 175 yards and a score. The Knights must focus on Coxie whenever he is on the field.

But will he be on the field?

Oh? Some basic Twitter searching will lead you to some Memphis fans who are practically begging for more info on this rumor. Unless some official word comes out within the next 12-18 hours, we’ll just have to keep track of Memphis’ pre-game warmups and look for No. 10 in blue. Rest assured that Coxie’s impact on this game is going to be felt whether he suits up or not.

4. Can UCF’s defense get off the field on third down?

Penalties won’t be the only thing that could possibly slow UCF’s offense. The Tigers will have a hand in that if they can keep their own drives going, and they have been fantastic at doing that. Memphis has turned a third down into a first down 55.9 percent of the time (19 of 34). That’s sixth-best in the FBS.

UCF’s defense has held up on 45.8 percent of third downs (22 of 48), which is only eighth-best in the AAC and ranks 54th out of the 76 FBS programs currently playing ball.