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2013 UCF, the proto-champions

Everyone will remember the 2017 season when UCF went undefeated and claimed a national championship, but the program broke through and really proved themselves back in 2013 with a league title and Fiesta Bowl upset.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Central Florida v Baylor

When UCF went 13-0 in 2017 and claimed a national championship, there was a degree to which they felt like a new kid on the block. The Knights had been competitive in Conference-USA for a few years and the AAC after that but they took a big dip in 2015 with an 0-8 start that saw head coach George O’Leary resign during the season. He was replaced by Scott Frost and after a 6-6 start they’ve gone 25-1 in the two years since with a strong core returning in 2019 for HC Josh Heupel. Frost’s big 2017 season that he parlayed into his dream job at Nebraska felt like a cinderella story at the time because of the previous two seasons.

But the 2013 team was arguably their best team ever and certainly their first breakthrough squad. Their backfield tandem of QB Blake Bortles and RB Storm Johnson went in the first and seventh round of the following NFL draft, respectively, and they won the first ever American Athletic Conference championship. The AAC had not yet established its reputation yet as the strongest G5 conference and the proving grounds for all the major programs’ next head coach. The 2013 season though included tough competition for the no. 1 spot between the Central Florida Knights and the last Charlie Strong Louisville team before the Cardinals’ coach jumped up to the Texas job.

Those Cardinals had a defense with three 2014 NFL draft picks and six more defenders that would be selected in the 2015 draft. It was also led by first round pick Teddy Bridgewater, who was supported by a younger offense that would send three of his teammates to the NFL after the following season. The Cardinals were 13-1 in 2013 with a win over Miami in the Citrus bowl, their sole loss came at home to the Knights. The Knights were 12-1 with their sole blemish a 28-25 loss to an 11-2 Steve Spurrier South Carolina team. Their reward for this impressive season was yet another classic Fiesta Bowl pairing that hid the quality of its participants by matching unproven squads hungry for respect.

The Knights took on the 11-1, Big 12 champion Baylor Bears.

The 2013 Knights

While O’Leary was a good defensive coach from the 4-3 tradition, the Knights really made their name in 2013 with Blake Bortles and their offense. It was a truly multiple team that could comfortably get into 11 personnel (one TE, one RB), 12 personnel (two TEs), 21 personnel (two RBs including a FB and a TE), or 10 personnel (four WR spread). The Knights legitimately spread the ball around with their top four WRs reasonably close to each other in production.

The trick to their multiplicity of personnel packages and formations was an offense that was conceptually built around running inside zone. That was essentially the entire offense, a million ways to run inside zone with a play-action passing game built off that run scheme and then a few drop back passing schemes for Bortles and his receivers.

The OL was a significant and largely overlooked key to their offensive brilliance

2013 UCF OL

Player Size Career starts prior to Fiesta bowl
Player Size Career starts prior to Fiesta bowl
LT: Torrian Wilson 6-3, 308 27 starts
LG: Jordan McCray 6-3, 310 20 starts
C: Joey Grant 6-2, 285 13 starts
RG: Justin McCray 6-3, 310 31 starts
RT: Chris Martin 6-5, 303 25 starts

None of them were drafted and only Chris Martin had anything close to the kind of size that is often prized in OL recruits, but they all had a good deal of experience blocking inside zone together. On top of that, the Knights had a variety of wrinkles to help them out. One is that unlike many spread teams that run inside zone, the Knights played in three point stances (hand in the dirt) that make pass protection trickier but help a lineman get low and drive opponents off the ball. Another is that they ran lots of zone-read plays with Blake Bortles holding the backside DE with the threat of the keeper:

They could also run it from bigger sets with lead inserts from the FB and extra double teams enabled by getting their TEs on the edge. For the OL it was always just inside zone and the different personnel packages could allow them to hammer different parts of the line or handle defenders in different ways.

Star RB Storm Johnson turned 213 carries into 1139 yards at 5.3 ypc with 14 TDs, backup William Stanback added 443 yards at 4.2 ypc with six TDs and Bortles ran it 87 times for 272 yards at 3.1 ypc and six scores (before removing sack yardage). They weren’t always particularly explosive on the ground but they were very steady at punching the ball ahead for positive gains behind expert double teams.

Bortles was deadly in this offense thanks to his accuracy, mobility, and arm strength. It was very hard to cover up all of the UCF skill players while getting enough defenders in the box to stop the steady pounding of the run game. For the year he threw for 3581 yards at 9.5 ypa with 25 TDs to nine INTs.

The defense was a highly disciplined 4-2-5 squad that wouldn’t make much of an impression on the NFL. They had a fairly big DL that played a fair amount of Under fronts to try and cover up a solid LB tandem of Terrance Plummer (leading tackler) and speedy Tory Gary. They didn’t have a particularly potent pass-rush but did pick off 14 passes over the year.

An underrated showdown

The 2013 Baylor Bears were the worst kind of draw to get in the postseason. They’d figured out defense under Phil Bennett by this point and had an exceptionally quick defensive backfield led by JUCO LB Eddie Lackey. The 5-10, 220 pounder was considered undersized but really he was just ahead of his time, with lightning quick lateral speed he was able to lead the Bears to their first season of good defense under Art Briles with 108 tackles, 13 TFL, 4.5 sacks, and three INT.

Of course there was also the Baylor offense, which had scored 52.4 ppg and blown away the conference. Bryce Petty took over for Nick Florence at QB and threw for 4200 yards at 10.4 ypa with 32 TDs to only three INT. The Bears had three different RBs over 500 rushing yards, led by Lache Seastrunk who ran for 1177 at 7.4 ypc with 11 TDs. Petty himself added 14 rushing TDs, often finishing their drives with sneaks or power-read runs across the goal line.

Their WR corps was led by Antwan Goodley, with 1339 yards and 13 TDs, and then supported by a pretty deep cast of players. Tevin Reese was their next most prominent at that time but injuries had held him out of a few games, Corey Coleman was a rising star but not yet at the peak of his powers nor the focus of the offense.

To beat Baylor UCF was going to have to figure out how to stop or slow down one of the most potent offenses that college football had ever seen while scoring enough to win against an underrated, P5 defense.

The offensive side of things for UCF went in fits and spurts. They busted up the Bears early on with the normal zone-read/play-action approach before Baylor adjusted and cleared up their option assignments. What hurt the Bears though was the team speed of UCF and their ability with Bortles to punish overplays. The eventual third overall pick ran the ball eight times for 93 yards and a score, the last one of which essentially determined the game.

Bortles would go on to run a 4.9 40 but a 4.21 shuttle at the combine. He was pretty nimble and big and tough enough to take inside running lanes, on plays like this he doesn’t look terribly fast but his cuts made him hard to catch and he could chew up yardage quickly. The Bears’ outside LB forced this play inside but their tackle reached the LB and Bortles was able to hit that crease before darting wide.

Bortles also caught the Bears in blitzes on two occasions that were punished with quick bubble routes to Rannell Hall for TDs:

Bortles threw for 301 yards on the day at 9.7 ypa with three TDs to two INTs and the Bears were unable to fully commit to the run as they needed because leaving UCF’s skill talent in 1-on-1s was so dangerous. Storm Johnson had 20 carries for 124 yards and three more scores.

But while the Baylor defense of 2013 was underrated, the more shocking achievement was by the UCF defense in holding down the Bear offense. The Bear offense specialized in attacking opponents over the top with option routes by WRs isolated in 1-on-1 matchups and then running them over when they were forced to vacate rushing lanes as a result.

UCF’s clearly understood that they had to deny the throws over the top or even their own offense would be unable to keep pace. So they spent the game playing a few varieties of two-deep coverage with the nickel and LBs getting wide enough to ensure that they could disrupt route stems and channel receivers into areas where the deep safeties could reasonably pick them up without getting burned.

UCF was able to regularly get Bryce Petty to hold onto the ball and settle for attempting comeback routes when the deeper options weren’t available:

The Knights were able to consistently take away the deep choice routes that tended to blow up the structures of other defenses and force the Bears to get the job done taking underneath throws and running the ball. Against that dimension, UCF did a good job of timing their shifts for the last minute when they wanted to bring pressure or load up numbers into the box.

They repeatedly forced Petty to make RPO decisions AFTER the snap when presented with a different look than he expected BEFORE the snap. Lache Seastrunk ended up with 117 yards on just 17 carries but there were too many stuffs and TFLs to allow them to sustain drives.

This is the art to beating RPO spread offenses. You need to make the RPOs and isolation/choice routes into legitimate post-snap reads and force the offense to earn points the hard way. This is especially against an offense like Baylor where they were used to their extra wide spacing effectively clearing up the reads and allowing the QB to drop back and just immediately throw to spots on the field. The Bears still scored of course, but they had to be more methodical about it and they had many drives end in punts when the game was still there to be won and UCF hadn’t overloaded the scoreboard yet.

It was obvious that UCF made good use of their bowl prep to nail down the route combos of the Bears and effectively match them from their coverages. This secondary didn’t go on to overwhelm the NFL either, instead it was a collection of good athletes who’d been well coached and played together with discipline.

Under George O’Leary UCF put a major emphasis on their football team, built a stadium on campus, and eventually broke through with this big season before he kinda called it in and retired. They recovered very easily afterwards and the roster was (obviously) still well stocked with talent when Scott Frost took over. It’ll be interesting to see what’s in the future for the program but the 2013 season and Fiesta Bowl were an under appreciated moment in the chronicle of their still ongoing ascension.

The Bears had just dominated a down Big 12 season when neither Oklahoma nor Texas was fielding as strong a team as they’re capable of producing. That Baylor squad was basically an example of a non-blueblood/P5 team exploring the ceiling of what’s possible without a roster of bluechip recruits and endless program resources...yet the Knights dispatched them. UCF revealed that they were on par with the strongest non-blueblood P5 teams in their first big season, they’ve been building on that ever since.