Summer Vacation: Sophomore Slumps, Sleeping Giants and the Central Florida Knights

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

The University of Central Florida has an enrollment of 56,000.  The athletic department has a budget approaching $40 million.  It has a brand new stadium with 45,000 capacity.  It is based in a state that produced approximately 350 FBS signees this past year alone, 305 of which did not commit to go to Florida, Florida State or Miami.  Long ago, Tom Osborne famously called my alma mater, Missouri, a sleeping giant because of its potential for recruiting and support.  You want a sleeping giant?  Central Florida is a sleeping giant.  There are many steps to go (including potentially a conference change) before it could begin to realize the potential it possess based on sheer numbers, but few boast the recruiting base, growing alumni base and seeming commitment to athletics that UCF boasts right now.

In 2010, Central Florida gave a glimpse of what it could become.  The Knights went 11-3, won the Conference USA title, and held off a semi-uninterested Georgia team to win the Liberty Bowl.  It was their first bowl win among four trips in the last six years, and it represented a significant step forward for George O'Leary and the program as a whole.

The question now is, is this sustainable?  Under O'Leary, UCF has progressed in fits and starts.  An 8-5 campaign in 2005 was followed by 4-8 in 2006.  10-4 in 2007, 4-8 in 2008.  For the first time, UCF took a step forward in 2009 (8-5), then took another step forward in 2010.  The offense was the best of the O'Leary era and returns enough pieces to be dangerous again in 2011, but they gave themselves little margin for error and might find the going a bit tougher this fall.  They'll have to be solid, as the defense is breaking in a lot of new parts, and there are signs that luck went UCF's way in 2010.  O'Leary is starting to compile the depth and athleticism necessary for every-year success -- no matter what issues he's had in the past, the guy can coach -- but we'll see if he and the Knights can avoid at least a temporary step backwards this fall.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 11-3 | Adj. Record: 9-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 37
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
04-Sep South Dakota
38-7 W 34.8 - 36.4 L
11-Sep N.C. State 21-28 L 30.1 - 21.4 W
18-Sep at Buffalo 24-10 W 23.5 - 32.7 L
25-Sep at Kansas State 13-17 L 18.1 - 22.1 L
06-Oct UAB 42-7 W 42.5 - 11.4 W
13-Oct at Marshall 35-14 W 29.7 - 27.3 W
23-Oct Rice 41-14 W 31.1 - 15.0 W
30-Oct East Carolina 49-35 W 37.9 - 30.9 W
05-Nov at Houston 40-33 W 32.5 - 29.1 W
13-Nov Southern Miss 21-31 L 27.4 - 27.5 L
20-Nov at Tulane 61-14 W 41.7 - 22.8 W
27-Nov at Memphis 37-17 W 28.9 - 30.9 L
04-Dec vs SMU 17-7 W 27.4 - 17.2 W
31-Dec vs Georgia 10-6 W 22.4 - 9.8 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 32.1 31 17.1 8
Adj. Points Per Game 30.6 39 23.9 35

Recipe for sure success: throw a 5'11, true freshman quarterback into the mix from day one, sit back, and watch him thrive immediately.  That's the lesson we take away from UCF's successful 2010 campaign.  Jeff Godfrey chose UCF over offers from Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Georgia and others, and was, by the third game of the season, O'Leary's man. As should always be expected from a young quarterback (especially a true freshman), UCF's offensive performance was all over the map from an Adj. Points perspective, but the end result was something far more successful than one would normally expect from such an experiment.  With Godfrey thriving late in the year and defense playing average to great ball from week to week, UCF won double-digit games for the second time in four years.  And with three more years of Godfrey to come, it's clear why you're hearing more and more mention of UCF as the Conference USA's No. 1 program.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 46 27 69
RUSHING 44 30 55 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 50 25 66 58
Standard Downs 42 24 55 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 98 76 99 61
Redzone 90 61 98
Q1 Rk 34 1st Down Rk 37
Q2 Rk 54 2nd Down Rk 82
Q3 Rk 91 3rd Down Rk 57
Q4 Rk 59

I'll give UCF credit for one thing above all others: they knew who they were on offense.  They had a talented-but-ridiculously-young quarterback behind center, and their goal was to keep the pressure off of him.  They made excellent play-calls on standard downs, and they ran the ball a ton.  They kept things at a slow pace, and they rarely varied from the script.  Quite a few of the passing downs passes were of the rollout-with-run-option variety.

If this doesn't work, it's considered unimaginative and too conservative.  Since it did work, it's considered principled and smart.  UCF was good enough at the run -- with both Godfrey (566 yards, 10 touchdowns, +8.5 Adj. POE) and the duo of Ronnie Weaver and Latavius Murray (1,527 yards, 22 touchdowns, +15.6 Adj. POE) -- that it opened up success in standard downs passing, and with as few passing downs attempts as possible, Godfrey's passing line was downright marvelous for a true freshman (2,159 yards, 9.1/pass, 67% completion rate!, 13 TD, 8 INT).

(The backfield gets crowded in 2011, by the way -- Weaver and Murray return, but they'll have to split carries with Brynn Harvey, who rushed for 1,109 yards in 2009 but missed all of last season with a knee injury.)

When you're protecting your quarterback, however, you're not giving yourself a lot of margin for error.  Hopefully Godfrey's ready for a step up in responsibility, as he doesn't have a lot returning in the receiving corps.  Gone are his three most frequent targets from a year ago -- Brian Watters (651 yards, 13.9/catch, 11.2/target, an incredible 81.0% catch rate, 2 TD), Jamar Newsome (616 yards, 16.6/catch, 11.4/target, 69% catch rate, 3 TD) and Kamar Aiken (486 yards, 15.2/catch, 8.4/target, 55% catch rate, 2 TD).  A.J. Guyton (353 yards), who apparently isn't this guy, will likely move from No. 4 target to No. 1 in 2011, meaning he will find it difficult to replicate his 82% catch rate and 10.4 yards/target against teams' No. 1 corners.  That, or four-star redshirt freshman Josh Reese, Godfrey's high school teammate, better be ready to rock and roll this year.

Other tidbits:

  • A wildcard in the receiver mix: all-star kick returner Quincy McDuffie, who seems to have faced a little bit of Devin Hester-itis so far in his career; he's got the return thing down pat, but he was only targeted 21 times (13 catches, 6.9 yards/target) last year.  He's shown speed, obviously, but can he run routes?
  • Is there anything I don't know about Brian Watters?  I know UCF plays in the CUSA and not the SEC, but ... 6'1, 200, 81% catch rate, 11.2 yards per target?  Knowing very little about him (other than that he was injured in 2009, I believe), that would seem worth a seventh-round draft pick to me.  But he's not even on ESPN's WRs list.
  • Three starters return on the offensive line, though the Knights might miss all-conference tackle Jah Reid.  Looks like last year's right guard, Nick Pieschel (himself an honorable-mention all-conference performer), will move to tackle to replace Reid.
  • I just can't say enough about UCF's game-planning and play-calling.  Offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe's first year could not have gone better.  UCF was best right out of the gates (the first quarter and first downs) and made just enough plays to counter the down times (third quarters, second downs, passing downs).  They were not as effective in the red zone as one would think for a solid rushing team, but ... well, they were effective enough to win Conference USA with a true freshman quarterback.  Have I mentioned that he was a true freshman?  Have I mentioned how impressed I am by that?

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 37 49 24
RUSHING 41 66 26 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 30 41 24 37
Standard Downs 41 65 39 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 29 42 22 16
Redzone 90 81 92
Q1 Rk 34 1st Down Rk 33
Q2 Rk 58 2nd Down Rk 37
Q3 Rk 54 3rd Down Rk 74
Q4 Rk 26

George O'Leary is a defensive-minded coach.  Before his stints at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame (ahem) and UCF, he was Bobby Ross' go-to defensive man with both Georgia Tech (defensive coordinator, 1987-91) and the San Diego Chargers (1992-93).  Since 2006, UCF has consistently had one of the better (or the best) Conference USA defenses.  On the defensive side of the ball, coaching means a little more and returning talent means a little less.  UCF fans better hope that's the case, anyway, because the 2011 UCF defense is not going to look much like the one that took the field in 2010.  Gone are both star end (and future NFL OLB) Bruce Miller (52.0 tackles, 13.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT) and one of his primary counterparts, David Williams (27.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks).  Gone are both outside linebackers, include Derrick Hallman (73.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 4 FF!, 1 INT, 6 PBU). Gone are cornerback Justin Boddie (41.5 tackles, 6 PBU) and strong safety Reggie Weams (33.5 tackles, 5 INT).  In all, only four starters return.

That's not to say there will not be talent, of course.  End Troy Davis displayed big-play potential, both last year (8.0 of his 21.0 tackles were for a loss, and he broke up six passes and picked one off) and in this year's spring game; he'll line up opposite Darius Nall (27.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, second-team all-conference).  Throw in tackle Victor Gray (26.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU ... they teach 'em to get their hands up in Orlando), and you've got yourself a line that is probably still going to be decent.  Opponents likely will not find it much easier to run on the Knights than they did last year (and they were apparently thrown enough by UCF's run D that they decided passing was a better option, even with Miller breathing down their neck).

Other tidbits:

  • Free safety Kemal Ishmael was your prototypical tackling machine, making 75.0 of them last year (only 1.0 for loss) and freeing up Weams and others to go make plays.  He returns, as do cornerbacks (Josh Robinson (52.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 7 PBU) and A.J. Bouye (18.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 7 PBU).  As with the defense as a whole, the secondary is less experienced, but there's certainly still hope.
  • I'd just like to point out that UCF has a backup tackle who a) is named Jose Jose and b) IS THREE-HUNDRED SEVENTY-ONE POUNDS.

Central Florida's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since I've had a criminally low amount of Curtis Mayfield representation so far, we'll rectify that with a little "Move On Up," even if it's predictable.  Now I just have to figure out how to fit a little "If There's a Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go" into one of these profiles.

(Insert mean Auburn joke here.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Ten Best Conference USA Teams According to F/+ (2005-10)
1. 2010 Central Florida (11-3, +7.1% F/+, 37th in the country)

2. 2005 Tulsa (9-4, +6.8%, 37th)
3. 2007 Central Florida (10-4, +6.2%, 41st)
4. 2006 Houston (10-4, +5.4%, 44th)
5. 2009 Houston (10-4, +5.3%, 44th)
6. 2008 Tulsa (12-2, +5.0%, 39th)
7. 2005 Southern Miss (7-5, +4.2%, 43rd)
8. 2006 Southern Miss (9-5, +3.5%, 49th)
9. 2008 East Carolina (9-5, +3.0%, 48th)
10. 2008 Houston (8-5, +2.4%, 49th)

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 57
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 58
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +4 / +5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (7, 4)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -6.7

Recruiting is picking up (their 2011 class ranked 39th according to Rivals, highest of any mid-major team excluding TCU, who won't be a mid-major for long) ... there's a potential star at quarterback and an offensive coordinator who seems to get him ... there are plenty of tools with which a defensive guy like O'Leary can work ... of this year's projected starters, 17 are underclassmen and could be returning starters next year.  Things really are taking shape here.  One has to figure UCF is on the Big East's radar, and with the program that O'Leary is building, there's nothing saying they won't be in position to compete immediately if they do get the call.

However...

...I do get the sneaking suspicion that UCF might be in for a slight step backwards this season.  If the new-look receiving corps cannot quickly find its way, then teams will find themselves more capable of focusing on and containing UCF's impressive run game.  The slide would be subtle; second-and-5's turn into second-and-7's, third-and-3's turn into third-and-5's, and at the end of the season, people are trying to figure out why Godfrey suffered a sophomore slump.  UCF's YPP margin was eighth-lowest in the country, meaning their efficiency (and their opponents' inefficiency) was perhaps unsustainable, and a regression in both efficiency and luck could be occurring soon.  In all, I am a lot more confident in UCF's two-, three-, and five-year prospects than I am in their ability to win a second straight Conference USA title this year.  It's quite possible that FO projections give them the nod, but I'm almost leaning toward Southern Miss in the CUSA East.

Then again, maybe Godfrey doesn't need protection from the play-calling anymore, and maybe he's about to unleash utter hell on the conference (and FIU, BYU and Boston College in non-conference).  I've certainly been wrong before...

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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