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NCAA Football Preview - UCF Knights

By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Despite finishing 12-1 last season, it seemed like UCF was constantly fighting for respect.

The Knights won their first three games, including a 34-31 victory over Penn State. Then they dropped a 28-25 decision against SEC power South Carolina. From there they would not lose again, posting some incredible victories along the way, including a 38-35 stunner over conference favorite Louisville on the road.

While the proverbial other shoe never dropped during the regular season, when UCF went a perfect 8-0 in AAC play, most prognosticators assumed the Knights would be easy prey in the Fiesta Bowl for high-powered Baylor. They couldn't have been more wrong, as UCF won a shootout, 52-42, to give the overlooked conference a BCS bowl victory in its first year.

Although it took some time, UCF is finally considered a favorite in the AAC this season, although head coach George O'Leary knows that type of respect needs to be earned again.

"I think it's hard to get to last year's season, but I think it's hard to stay there. That's the contest we have this year," O'Leary said, while adding of his players. "They understand what it takes to win, which is something I think you have to teach. A lot of these players understand what the expectation levels are."

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The breakout star of last year's squad was quarterback Blake Bortles, who threw for 3,581 yards and 25 touchdowns in leading the Knights to their third 10-win season in the last four seasons. Bortles cashed in on his phenomenal year and went No. 3 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2014 NFL Draft. That means there is an open spot on the roster under center.

There are four potential starters from which O'Leary is set to choose. Sophomore Justin Holman was the backup last season, but threw only 14 passes. Nick Patti is a redshirt freshman, who originally enrolled at Boise State before transferring. Tyler Harris and Pete DiNovo are also young and raw.

There is also an opportunity for a new running back to step up, as Storm Johnson took his 1,139 rushing yards to the NFL as well. William Stanback is the odds-on favorite to start the season. Last year, as Johnson's backup, the 6-foot-1 sophomore tallied 443 yards on 105 carries and also scored six times. There are eight other backs on the roster as well, meaning Stanback may still feel some pressure.

Whichever quarterback prospect takes hold of the starting job has the good fortune of working with a deep, talented and experienced receiving corps. Rannell Hall was the leading receiver last season, grabbing a team-high 57 receptions for 886 yards, which also led the squad. J.J. Worton (47 receptions, 721 yards, 7 TDs) was able to find the end zone more than any other pass-catcher, and Breshad Perriman (39 receptions, 811 yards, 4 TDs) has explosive playmaking ability, averaging 20.8 yards per reception a year ago.

The offensive line has two returning starters, with Torrian Wilson set at guard and Joey Grant at center.

DEFENSE: There isn't nearly as much work to be done on the defensive side of the ball, and that is a good thing. The Knights ranked among the top-20 in the country in scoring defense last season (21.3 ppg), while allowing just 362 yards per game.

Anchoring the unit is linebacker Terrance Plummer, who is a legitimate contender for AAC Defensive Player of the Year after he turned in a first-team all-league season in 2013. Plummer finished with an incredible 110 tackles as well as 2.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions. His ability to play as well against the run as the pass is invaluable. Troy Gray is another starter who will help out in the middle.

Two of the biggest threats to Plummer's POTY quest are his teammates Clayton Geathers and Jacoby Glenn, who lead a strong secondary. Geathers, a safety, brought down 100 ball-carriers last season and Glenn, a cornerback, had 52 stops while breaking up 15 passes. Both players had a pair of interceptions as well. Safety Brandon Alexander (63 tackles, 3 INTs) led the team in picks last year and cornerback Jordan Ozerities racked up 59 tackles.

Two starters also return to the defensive line. Thomas Niles was solid as a defensive end in 2013, finishing with a team-high 4 sacks and the second-most tackles for loss on the roster (8.0). Defensive tackle Demetris Anderson contributed 7 tackles for loss and 24 total tackles.

So much experience on defense should makes UCF a team that hits hard and does so often. And that's just how O'Leary likes it.

"We're a very aggressive team. I think that's what the game's about," O'Leary said. "It really is about winning the line of scrimmage, offensively, defensively, then getting the best people."

SPECIAL TEAMS: Just about every specialist is back as well. Shawn Moffitt connected on 21-of-23 field goal attempts in 2013, and Caleb Houston averaged 42.2 yards per punt.

Meanwhile, Worton and Hall were each excellent in handling punts and kickoffs, respectively.

OUTLOOK: The expectations UCF built last year will be difficult to live up to in 2014.

The challenge to do so begins across the Atlantic Ocean, with the Knights opening the season against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland. Two weeks later they play their second game at Missouri. They will be able to catch their breath against Bethune Cookman, but then head out for their AAC opener at Houston. Luckily, UCF does not face Cincinnati this season, but there are plenty of difficult games beyond the first few weeks, including the finale at East Carolina.

Defensively, UCF shouldn't skip a beat. That alone will be enough to keep it in contention for the AAC title and make for an easy bowl bid. If one of the quarterback prospects can come close to Bortles production, or at least put forth a strong year, the ceiling for this squad is even higher.

08/22 13:05:04 ET

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