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Don't look now, but UCF is still very good

UCF's National Championship defense is going about as well as possible after four weeks, but the Knights haven't carved out a huge presence yet in the national consciousness. That's probably because they've played one of the worst teams in FBS, an FCS team and an underwhelming Conference USA champ everyone thought would be at near UCF's level.

With Scott Frost gone to rebuild his alma mater, Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel is now at the helm for UCF. And while the Knights lost some big pieces from last year's team, they haven't missed a beat yet in 2018.

UCF has regressed only slightly on offense, and has seen improvement across the board on D.

It's true that they Ain't Played Nobody, but that's why we have advanced stats.

The Knights' offensive S&P+ ranking is down from No. 2 all the way to a downright abysmal No. 10. The defense has shot up from No. 74 to No. 55, and special teams is down from 52 to 69. Overall, S&P+ rates them at No. 16, down seven spots from last year's finish.

For a team that lost LB Shaquem Griffin, CB Mike Hughes, WR Tre'Quan Smith, TE Jordan Atkins and its entire coaching staff, things could have been so much worse.

Under Heupel, UCF's tempo has burned even faster. That's helped propel an offense that's still great, even if it's not as amazing as last year's.

The Knights were 22nd in adjusted pace last season. This season, they're No. 1. This pace has worn down opponents who already face significant challenges against the Knights.

Heupel's offense is much more play action-based than Frost's, which operated as an updated triple option with a pitch man and a dive man. McKenzie Milton's yards per attempt is down from 10.2 to 8.7, which makes any shot at Heisman contention unlikely. But he's still toying with defense that are ill-prepared to stop him (or anyone else, tbh):

mckenzie_milton.0.0.gif

Big plays like that have still been few and far between, though. UCF's offense has the same exact efficiency ranking of No. 4 that it did last year, per Bill C.'s numbers, but the Knights' explosiveness has been dramatically worse. Last year, Frost's team had the No. 5 explosiveness ranking, per isoPPP. Right now, that's all the way down at No. 87.

Such a good efficiency rating and success in the red zone have limited UCF's slide, though. The Knights are first in FBS in points per scoring opportunity on offense, and 11th in points per scoring opportunity allowed on defense. The Knights don't miss out on opportunities when they get rolling, and when opponents do make UCF's defense bend, it doesn't break.

An improved defense is helping.

UCF succeeded in spite of its defense last year. That unit likely won't win any games by itself in 2018, but it does look improved despite losing two of its biggest pieces in Griffin and Hughes. While the offense has gone from amazing to just very good, the defense has gone from below average to just average.

They're doing so much better at preventing big plays that it has almost canceled out the regression on offense. UCF's defensive isoPPP allowed is up from 114th all the way to 24th. It's less that they're amazing in any one area and more that they've been able to cut out some of the really bad qualities they had in 2017. Disruptive plays is one place they've skyrocketed, though, and that's undoubtedly contributed to improvement on D. UCF's havoc rate (percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass) is up from 56th to sixth, a surprising note especially given the departed Griffin's penchant for those kinds of plays.

UCF might not be getting the headlines it saw last year. But that could change soonish.

The Knights are projected to win seven of their remaining eight games, and only one of those seven has a win probability lower than 85 percent. That'd be against South Florida in a rematch of one of the best games of 2017. The only game they're projected to lose is against Memphis in Week 7, and the Knights are only projected to lose by 0.7 points on the road. Another undefeated season is within reach, though nothing's guaranteed.

UCF's schedule is weak this year, even more so that last season. Memphis is still a tough test at No. 21 in S&P+, but the rest of the AAC seems...meh. That's not their fault, nor is the fact that their Power 5 opponent this year, Pitt, is bad (No. 75 in S&P+). So while it might be hard to draw too much from the three games they've played so far, the schedule really doesn't get much harder from here.

The Knights might not have quite the same argument at crashing the Playoff that they did last season, but another New Year's Six bowl is definitely within reach.

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