22 days out from the UCF Knights playing the Duke Blue Devils on Dec. 28, there are some key questions to ask about the program.
It's a chance for head coach Gus Malzahn to showcase what's working well, show improvement, as well as provide a look at the young players.
The Knights are a tremendous running team. Will there be a focus to end the 2022 campaign at the same level?
The Knights ran for over 250 yards seven times in 2022, and over 300 yards four times. That’s production. Against Duke, this is still a challenge as the Blue Devils are on a five-game run of allowing 120 or less yards rushing.
Miami only had 48 yards against Duke. While UCF will not back down, it needs to be ready for a battle in the trenches. Further, UCF’s run-pass option attack needs to be good all around so that the quarterback can run just as often as he passes, no matter if it’s John Rhys Plumlee or Thomas Castellanos behind center.
Special teams play continues its upward trend?
Have to give it to the Knights. They absolutely improved the kicking game this season – field goals, kickoffs, and punts – to help the team win games. The return game is solid as well.
Now, can the Knights move forward and actually win a game where the special teams provide the game-changing play? Blocking a punt, a 30-plus yard punt return to set up the final touchdown drive?
Moving into the Big 12 for UCF means upping its game across the board. It would be great if it enters the Power 5 with special teams units that continue to prove they can be major assets.
How will the passing game look?
UCF’s passing game is solid. It’s not elite, but solid. It’s been clutch several times this season and that’s more important. Think back to the USF game, first game against Tulane, the Memphis contest, and the victory over Cincinnati as some examples.
With Ryan O’Keefe going into the Transfer Portal, there will be a new focus for whichever quarterback(s) throws passes. Teams will likely go out of their way to double cover Javon Baker. Against the Blue Devils, it will be interesting to see how the Knights adjust.
Rushing defense needs vast improvement.
Short and sweet, this area is in shambles right now. Figure it out. There’s no excuse for the lack of run defense UCF is providing. Holding Duke to 150 or less would be a start.
Which young players evolve in the military Bowl?
Bowl games traditionally see younger players gain an opportunity to strut their stuff. This will be the case for UCF, one would think. The obvious answer is wide receiver Xavier Townsend. He’s been playing all season long and now that O’Keefe is gone, there’s ample reason to believe he’s in the starting lineup.
Other young players will play, such as kicker Colton Boomer, but hopefully some of the young talent that's not as well known will see considerable action.
UCF fans should pay attention to the jersey numbers running out on the field and literally have a roster sitting next to them during the game, or at least readily available on their smartphones.
UCF versus Duke will be a chance to see the future of UCF football.