The 2020 college football season is two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country. Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.
No. 20: Central Florida
It has been three years since Central Florida went undefeated and crowned itself as a national champion. The Knights haven’t matched that magical 2017 season, but they haven’t fallen off the radar, either. Over the past two years, UCF is 22-4. This fall, Central Florida should find itself in dogfight in the American Athletic Conference. Last year, the AAC had as many 10-game winners — Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy, SMU and UCF — as it did teams with losing records.
Last year, Central Florida was 16th in our preseason poll.
About the Knights
2019: 10-3, 6-2 in the AAC; beat Marshall 48-25 in the Gasparilla Bowl
Coach: Josh Heupel (22-4 overall, 22-4 in two years at UCF)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense
Shoes to fill: WR Gabriel Davis (last year’s leading receiver, fourth-round NFL draft pick by the Bills); LB Nate Evans (last year’s leading tackler); RB Adrian Killins (all-conference); DL Brendon Hayes (all-conference); OL Jake Brown (all-conference)
Former Oklahoma quarterback Joey Halzle will coach his old position after serving as a quality control assistant in 2019. Heupel, of course, is also an ex-Sooners quarterback. … Alex Golesh, UCF’s new co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, spent the past four seasons at Iowa State. … Marcus Tatum has joined UCF’s offensive line as a graduate transfer who started three times last year at Tennessee. … Central Florida’s 2020 recruiting class ranked 74th. The Knights did not sign a four- or five-star prospect.
Passing: Dillon Gabriel (led team), 236-398-3,653 yards, 29 TDs, 7 INTs
Rushing: RB/WR Otis Anderson (1st), 113-726-5; RB Bentavious Thompson (3rd), 87-604-8
Receiving: WR Marlon Williams (2nd), 51-717-6; WR Tre Nixon (3rd), 49-830-7
Tackles: DB Richie Grant (2nd), 78; LB Eric Mitchell (t-3rd), 77; LB Eriq Gilyard (t-3rd), 77
Sacks: DL Kenny Turnier (2nd), 3.5
Interceptions: DB Antwan Collier (1st), 4; DB Aaron Robinson (2nd), 3
Offense: OL Cole Schneider (2nd team); RB Otis Anderson (hon. mention); WR Tre Nixon (hon. mention)
Defense: DB Richie Grant (1st); DB Aaron Robinson (2nd); DL Kenny Turnier (hon. mention)
QB options: During the 2019 season, Gabriel led the nation’s freshmen in passing yards and ranked 13th nationally. Gabriel, whose cousin starts on Texas’ volleyball team, fell just 10 passing yards behind UT’s Sam Ehlinger and Liberty’s Stephen Calvert and was 12 yards shy of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. If Gabriel slumps as a sophomore, UCF has intriguing options on its bench. McKenzie Milton and Darriel Mack have started before, and Milton starred on the 2017 team. But Milton (knee) and Mack (ankle) are both working their way back from serious injuries.
Receivers reloaded: When Buffalo used the 128th pick on Davis, he became the third UCF receiver to be drafted since 2015 (Breshad Perriman, Baltimore 2015; Tre’Quan Smith, New Orleans 2018). Davis accounted for 26% of UCF’s receptions last year, but Gabriel won’t be left without any targets. Williams and Nixon ranked 13th and 15th in the AAC in passes caught last year. UCF receivers coach Darrell Wyatt, who worked at Texas from 2011-13, also will have Oklahoma transfer Jaylon Robinson to throw into the mix.
Early test: When it comes to its national perception, UCF will have to gain some clout in its games against Power Five schools. In the middle of September, the Knights should be favored against rebuilding Georgia Tech. Central Florida also will have a chance to send a huge message in their season opener. UCF is set to host a Mack Brown-led North Carolina team on Sept. 4. The Tar Heels went 7-6 last year and are picking up votes in preseason polls across the country.
2019 national stat rankings
Where Central Florida ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Knights ranked in 2018.
Scoring: 5th (2018 — 6th)
Scoring defense: T-41st (36th)
Total offense: 2nd (5th)
Total defense: 32nd (95th)
Passing: 8th (T-36th)
Pass defense: 26th (50th)
Rushing: 19th (8th)
Rush defense: 53rd (117th)
Red zone offense: T-90th (14th)
Red zone defense: T-65th (T-11th)
Turnover margin: T-27th (T-3rd)
Time of possession: 123rd (126th)
Our Top 25 — so far
No. 20: Central Florida
Our No. 19 team. Want a hint?
This school is a founding member of the Big Ten, but hasn’t won a conference title since 1967.