For the first time since last season, UCF started the same quarterback that it had the previous week. It was Dillon Gabriel, the true freshman from Hawaii, who passed for 347 yards and four touchdowns in UCF’s Week 3 victory over Stanford—but that’s not to say the Knights’ job is Gabriel’s. For now, it could be anyone’s, and that might not be a bad thing.
By throttling Stanford, 45–27, Saturday, UCF delivered the biggest regular-season win since it rose to national prominence with an undefeated 2017. Since the start of that season, the Knights (who play in the American Athletic Conference) have had five Power 5 opponents on their schedule, and they’ve gone 4–1 in such matchups. Two, a win over Auburn and a loss to LSU, were bowl games, and in the regular season, the Knights took on Maryland in 2017 and Pitt in ’18. Stanford on Saturday was, by far, a superior opponent to either of those two prior nonconference foes; it started 2019 ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll and has gone 1–1 since, with its loss coming against USC.
For two consecutive seasons, UCF was denied a crack at the College Football Playoff in large part due to its strength of schedule—or lack thereof. Bad luck figured into the Knights’ relatively weak slates the past two falls, as hurricanes forced the cancelation of games against North Carolina in 2018 and Georgia Tech the year prior. Still, neither of those matchups had the panache of Stanford, which won the Pac-12 North in five of the past eight seasons and attracted Tiger Woods to the sideline in Orlando Saturday.
UCF proceeded to knock the Cardinal out of the game before halftime. After two quarters, the Knights were up 38–10 thanks to strong play from Gabriel, who most recently broke Tua Tagovailoa’s high school passing yards record in the state of Hawaii last fall. Saturday’s was the second consecutive game Gabriel started, and though he was a relative nonfactor in the Knights’ preseason quarterback battle, he looks like he’ll play a major part on an offense that is quickly mounting an argument for the third consecutive year for inclusion in the playoff.
Gabriel got the start last week against Florida Atlantic when Brandon Wimbush, the Notre Dame graduate transfer, was sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Wimbush, a dual-threat quarterback who’s struggled with turnovers and accuracy issues, was UCF’s Week 1 starter—in large part because Darriel Mack Jr., the sophomore who took over for McKenzie Milton after his brutal knee injury last November, broke his ankle in fall camp. It’s been a bit like a game of dominoes at the position for the Knights, who haven’t missed a beat; after Week 2 they were fifth in the FBS in total offense, averaging 634.0 yards per game. Saturday’s game dropped that average to 604.3, which will still be top 10 once the weekend is finished.
Through three games, UCF has also looked strong on defense, countering another argument against teams past under coach Josh Heupel in 2018 and Scott Frost in ’17. The Knights allowed Stanford 349 yards, up from their first two games, but they still looked in control defensively; through three weeks, they’re allowing opponents an average of just 253 yards. That will likely drop them out of the top 10 in total defense, where they stood after two games against relatively weak offensive attacks, but it’s a marked improvement for a team that allowed opponents an average of 435.7 yards last season and 427.9 the year before. It’s a small sample size so far, but if UCF can keep opposing offenses to even, say, fewer than 400 yards, it’ll mount an even more compelling case—especially as its arsenal of quarterbacks gets progressively healthier.
Gabriel was the guy Saturday, but Wimbush did come into the game briefly, without attempting a pass. Mack, too, is healthy and cleared for game action, and it will be fascinating to see how Heupel and new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby deploy the three of them going forward.
The Knights get another Power 5 opponent next week in Pitt, which threatened Penn State but ultimately lost on Sunday. A win there would give UCF victories against the Pac-12 and ACC, with a relatively challenging conference schedule looming that includes Cincinnati and Houston, two of the AAC’s more talented teams.
After the Stanford win, UCF will argue that it gave the playoff committee its biggest ask: a win over a Power 5 program with name recognition and a talented roster. If UCF goes undefeated, it’ll be up to the committee to find a new argument against the Knights and their offense that’s looking too stacked to fail.