Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.
The Big Story: UCF
After just two months out of a coaching job, Gus Malzahn is back (despite his initial insistence that he was finished). Malzahn’s eight years of experience as an SEC head coach are sure to turn some heads within the AAC and help with recruiting for the future. But the longtime Auburn coach has an interesting job ahead of him this season. He’s got his quarterback in rising star Dillon Gabriel. He’s got some depth at offensive line. But where does the defense go after finishing No. 123 of 127 in yards allowed per game a year ago? And how can he spark a rapid turnaround with a squad that finished with a disappointing six wins in 2020?
Wide receiver Jaylon Robinson’s skill set includes more than just sporting the best hair in the AAC. In his first year after transferring from Oklahoma, the 5' 9" speedster made an instant impact, reaching at least 100 yards receiving in each of his first four games. He finished with 979 yards and six touchdowns on 55 catches and started all 10 games for the Knights. With last year’s leading receiver, Marlon Williams, out of the picture, they’ll need Robinson to find some consistency in big games—his two lowest receiving totals a season ago came in losses to No. 7 Cincinnati and No. 13 BYU.
Key Question: Can Malzahn keep Gabriel on the path to stardom?
It’s never easy for a young quarterback to change systems mid-career. That’s not an indictment of Gabriel’s talent. The junior finished behind just three NFL draftees and North Carolina star Sam Howell for the nation’s lead in passing yards in 2020. Malzahn brought on G.J. Kinne III, who most recently spent one year as the offensive coordinator at pass-happy Hawaii, to serve as co-OC and quarterbacks coach. Whether that’s a positive for Gabriel’s development is yet to be seen—Kinne is mostly unproven as a coordinator. Malzahn’s hit-or-miss track record with quarterbacks at Auburn isn’t exactly comforting either, but if he and Gabriel can get on the same page quickly, it could be a prolific pairing.
X-Factor: A defensive turnaround
For all this talk of the UCF offense, that won’t be this season’s hinge. The other side of the ball needs vast improvement in pretty much every area. The good news: New defensive coordinator Travis Williams’s Auburn defense held its own in the rough-and-tumble SEC, bending without breaking too often. The bad: The Knights’ only two defensive players to be named to an all-conference team in 2020 were selected in the 2021 NFL draft. Malzahn is going to call on some familiar names—notably last year’s leading tackler Eriq Gilyard—and some new ones as he tries to improve upon an uncharacteristic year in 2020.
Date to Circle: Oct. 16 at Cincinnati
The Bearcats took over UCF’s title as the Group of 5’s darling last season. This midseason meeting could be a turning point in the AAC’s title race and the running for a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Cincinnati hasn’t lost at home since November 2017, and the road to a conference championship will likely run through Nippert Stadium again. Last year, UCF threatened to end the Bearcats’ bid for an undefeated regular season but eventually fell, 36–33. While the Knights will still have Memphis, Temple and SMU to follow, a win over Cincinnati would be a big step in vaulting Malzahn’s squad back to the Group of 5 mountaintop.
The Bottom Line
UCF clearly wants to be back among the Group of 5’s elite, and hiring Malzahn was a great first step to do so. But can the Knights surround their star quarterback with enough talent to lead them back?