It’s our last full week without UCF Knights football, and as we continue to preview the Knights for 2022, we give you our Five Biggest Questions facing the Knights heading into the season.
We continue by looking at the schedule — specifically, one big question: Who will be the scariest opponent the Knights will have to face in its final year in The American in 2022?
Once again, Jeff Sharon, Kyle Nash, Andrew Gluchov, and Bryson Turner all give their takes in Round Table format:
Jeff: The East Carolina Pirates. I know we have overlooked this team a lot recently but we need to start paying attention. Sure, Cincinnati, Houston and SMU are grabbing the headlines but something about this ECU team scares me a bit.
First, they were sneaky good last year at 7-5 and 5-3 in the conference, good enough for 4th. Two of their losses were a 31-24 heartbreaker at Houston in overtime where they came back from down 14 in the 4th after a five-hour weather delay, and a 20-16 nail-biter at UCF on a TD with 23 seconds left. They were supposed to play Boston College in the bowl game but that got COVIDed.
Second, they have a legit coach in Mike Houston, who won a national title at James Madison in 2016 and is now entering his fourth year in Greenville. Houston knows how to win and recruit in the mid-Atlantic area, and looks to have the Pirates primed and ready for a run at the AAC title, if not this year, then certainly once UCF, Houston and Cincinnati get out of the way.
Third, they bring back their QB, Holton Ahlers, for a fifth season. Ahlers has 42 games under his belt already and will likely be atop ECU’s passing record books at the end of the year, with more than 10,000 passing yards and 69 TD passes coming into 2022. Experience matters, especially under center, and he is the most experienced QB in the league.
Finally, we play them on the road, and Dowdy-Ficklin is always a problem if the Pirates are good.
Kyle: In my mind, it’s SMU. While their new head coach Rhett Lashlee wanted us to believe that there was a competition for who would start at quarterback in 2022, the shock anyone might have had when incumbent Tanner Mordecai was declared “QB1” disappears when you see last year’s 3,628 yards on 68% completions with 39 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. Pair that with running back Tre Siggers returning after turning in 727 yards in 11 games averaging nearly five yards a carry and the Mustangs have an offense that will stampede past opponents.
While their numbers may regress with some Oline turnover and Lashlee getting things acclimated in his first year with the program, their defense returns several key players as well. An argument can be made that they are the most balanced team in the American. They are easily the biggest stumbling block the Knights have in the conference.
Andrew: I’m with Kyle. It’s SMU. The Mustangs started hot last year, opening up 7-0 and climbing up to 19th in the top 25. After that, they started to come up short, losing three games by one score. They also got stomped by Cincinnati in Nippert Stadium, but only one team, Tulsa, kept the game within one score when playing at the home of the Bearcats. This is a very talented team that made short work of UCF last year 55-28. With quarterback Tanner Mordecai back for another year and new head coach and former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee running the team, the offense should be humming by the time the two teams meet in Orlando on October 1st. Both teams will be coming off out-of-conference home games against Power Five competition(Georgia Tech for UCF and TCU for SMU) and both teams have byes following the game, so neither will need to leave anything in the tank for the next game. UCF was selected by the media to finish third and SMU fourth, so anything can happen.
Bryson: Kyle and Drew have already spoken about SMU, so I won’t add on to that (though I will say they are a close No. 2 to my pick).
I’ll see your Tanner Mordecai and raise you Malik Cunningham. This quarterback evaded defender after defender to amass a 1,000-yards rushing and score 20 rushing touchdowns last season, the 4th-most of any player in the nation. This season, he is coming to the Bounce House in Week 2 (September 9th).
Last season’s game with the Cardinals proved a turning point for the Knights. It was the team’s first loss of 2021 and started a 1-3 stretch of games that certainly had me anxious on where the team was going to go without Dillon Gabriel. Of course, the rest, as they say, is history as Malzahn and co. salvaged the season by going 6-1 to finish it out.
While I definitely think the fanbase may have a chip on its shoulder for this game, Cunningham’s presence makes this one a wild card.