State Colleges

UCF has the talent to back up dream season

After the 2013 season UCF had, what can the Knights do for an encore?

It’s going to be tough, but with plenty of talented players returning, the Knights are looking for even more.

“We only lost seven players on the whole team,” coach George O’Leary said at the American Athletic Conference media day last month. “Pretty much we have the team back intact. ​

“We understand where we’re at. 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.”

The Knights had a dream season in 2013, doing more than any other team in school history.

Not only did the Knights go 12-1 and win the league championship in their first season as members of the American Athletic Conference, but UCF played in its first major bowl game.

The Knights topped Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl, just the third bowl win in school history — all coming in the past four seasons.

Following the season, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles entered the NFL Draft and became the highest-picked player in school history when he went third overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars (Daunte Culpepper went 11th to Minnesota in 1999).

Although UCF needs to find a replacement for Bortles — O’Leary gave the nod to redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo a few weeks into fall camp — the Knights still have plenty to work with.

With nine starters back on one of the top defenses in the country, UCF feels good about where it’s headed this season.

“I don’t think the 12-1 record just occurred,” said O’Leary, who has denied a Fox Sports report to the Orlando Sentinel stating he is going to step down once the season starts. “It’s been something that’s been going on. The kids that we have with us today, they’ve won 10 games, 11 games, finalized with 12 games. I think the culture of winning is there.”

The Knights aren’t going to have an easy road, at least not early as UCF has two tough games to start. UCF opens its season Saturday against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland.

“We’re getting a pretty big paycheck,” O’Leary said.

The Knights beat the host Nittany Lions 34-31 last season, the first of a handful of signature wins they picked up along the way.

After a bye week, UCF travels to Missouri before opening at home against Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 20. The Knights then travel to face an improving Houston team on Oct. 2 but don’t play AAC challenger Cincinnati.

Making it to another big bowl game is also tougher for the Knights this season.

Last season, the AAC had an automatic bid into the Bowl Championship Series, with the Knights ending up in Arizona after going 8-0 in the conference. UCF’s only loss last season was a 28-25 home defeat to South Carolina in the fourth game of the season.

This season, the rules have changed. The AAC isn’t one of the five conferences to have teams automatically go into the bowl pool, although with a strong season the Knights could gain the one slot allotted to the conferences on the outside looking in.

O’Leary isn’t worried about it. He figures with wins will come the reward.

“If you don’t win, don’t come by at the end of the year complaining you didn’t go to the playoffs,” he said. “The best scenario is schedule good people and win, win your share of them. That’s what you got to do.”