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Sooner or Later: UCF Faces Familiar Faces Dillon Gabriel and Jeff Lebby

UCF takes on former QB Dillon Gabriel and OC Jeff Lebby at #6 Oklahoma

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Nebraska Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

No UCF Knights game in recent memory has the unique storylines as this week does when the Knights travel to Norman to take on No. 6 Oklahoma, who is led by former Knight Quarterback Dillon Gabriel.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Louisville
Gabriel played for Gus Malzahn in 2021
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Gabriel started 26 games at UCF, completing 60.7% of his passes, with 70 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Gabriel broke his clavicle on the last play of the September 17th, 2021 loss at Louisville which ended his season and ultimately his UCF career. Gabriel announced the day after UCF’s win over South Florida that he was entering the transfer portal.

The announcement was not greeted very well by some UCF fans who were not happy with how Gabriel left as many thought he could have returned late in the 2021 season, which was a topic on the ESPN+ series “Our Time: UCF Football’’.

Gabriel originally committed to UCLA only to change his course and transfer to Oklahoma to reunite with offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who was UCF’s offense coordinator for Gabriel’s freshman season (2019). Some UCF players, including Gabriel, openly campaigned for Lebby to be the Knights’ head coach when Josh Heupel left UCF for Tennessee in 2021.

That was unlikely to happen as Lebby has baggage after serving under his father-in-law Art Briles and being named in the Baylor sexual assault scandal which came up once again on September 9th at Oklahoma’s home game against SMU, where Briles was on the field in the pregame.

Lebby was at UCF for two seasons under Head Coach Josh Heupel, who was a former Sooners starting quarterback, leading Oklahoma to the national title in 2000.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Oklahoma
Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Dillon Gabriel (8) warms up in front of offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby before the game against the Southern Methodist Mustangs
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Now in 2023, Gabriel and Lebby are looking to help the Sooners make a run to the national title with UCF in the way this Saturday, which would not have been possible had Gabriel not gotten injured in 2021 and gotten a medical redshirt year.

Regardless if you agree with this behavior or not, if this game was played in Orlando instead of Norman, there’s a good chance Gabriel at best would have gotten a mixed reaction, if not a ton of negative reaction. Perhaps the Big 12 schedule makers wanted to avoid that scenario in scheduling this game at Oklahoma.

You will likely hear plenty about Gabriel’s time at UCF and his departure throughout the week and on the ABC telecast with a spin on the story. But make no mistake about it: A UCF upset win over Oklahoma would be extra special for Knight fans, as they would take extra pleasure in wrecking Gabriel’s season.

On the other hand, a big Gabriel game in an Oklahoma win would be extra bitter for many Knights fans tuning in or making the trip for the game.

Gabriel spoke with the local Oklahoma media on Monday and was asked about playing against UCF:

On playing a “familiar team” (UCF) and if he’s looking forward to it:

“I am. I think it’s interesting how college football brings it all full circle. I’m excited for it. I’m excited for every opportunity. I’m grateful I get to run out with these guys. It’ll be a great time.”

On whether this week feels different or odd because UCF is now a Big 12 team:

“I think now I’m just kind of settling in that college football is what it is and it’s wild. If you think one thing it’ll turn into another. I’m letting it all happen. I would say this. I’m not surprised about college football and how things are going. It could be any matchup or any player on any team.”

On the season he spent playing for UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn:

“It was a great experience, I think I learned a lot in being able to go from one scheme to another, just learning different terminology, but also just adjusting to new coaching. In my career I’ve had three different head coaches, four different QB coaches, and three different OCs. So I think all those experiences built together. I think I’ve just been able to learn a bunch, have a bunch of connection, and also just my growth as a QB has been because of that.”

Malzahn was asked about Gabriel at his Monday press conference:

What makes Dillon Gabriel so good?

“Well, he’s got an outstanding skill set. You talk about a guy, when we had him, every day in practice, he would make a throw that you’d go, wow. His accuracy. He’s a veteran guy now, too. Think about all the snaps he’s played. You can see when you watch him on film, he’s got really good command. He knows when to throw the ball away. He’s got great courage. He’ll wait until the last second, get the ball out and then you talk about the RPO world. They’re good at running the football, but he’s also good at reading it. So really, it’s all above with him.”

You had Dillon Gabriel for a season. Is there any advantage that you have in knowing a little bit of some of his ins and outs that maybe you can study this week?

“He was with us for three games. We were one of the top offenses in the country at the time and then he got hurt. I really don’t think so. I think he’s an outstanding quarterback, one of the best in the country. Every week you can turn on the film and you can see why.”

Kickoff for UCF at Oklahoma is set for noon Eastern on ABC. Oklahoma is a 19-point favorite as of Tuesday afternoon.