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After a challenging offseason made difficult by the outbreak of COVID-19, the University of Central Florida will travel to Atlanta and battle Georgia Tech. At last, they can start their season on the gridiron. While college football fans would typically yawn at the Yellow Jackets as an opponent of late, their victory against Florida State last week shocked the landscape of Florida sports. However, UCF would gain its own bulletin board material from that very same game for their upcoming contest.
During the weather delay broadcast from the aforementioned upset, yet another ESPN personality took aim at the Knights’ legitimacy as a sprouting national power. College football analyst Anthony ‘Booger’ McFarland referenced a big three “when it comes to college football in the state of Florida” – FSU, the University of Florida, and the University of Miami. When a fellow show panelist pointed out that UCF fans may take umbrage with that stance, McFarland doubled down with the grin of a Cheshire cat. Regardless of how one feels about the validity of McFarland’s stance, it’s fair to assume that Head Coach Josh Heupel’s quest to take his squad to “1-0” per his weekly motto could include a picture of McFarland on the bulletin board.
While inspiration for both Georgia Tech and the Knights is in surplus for Saturday’s affair, games are decided on the field, not the media airwaves. Unfortunately, UCF has 10 players who have opted out of their season. The only starters being Tay Gowan, who has committed to the NFL 2021 Draft and junior defensive lineman Kalia Davis. Backup quarterback Darriel Mack is also on the list.
Gowan’s presence in coverage giving up only two endzone completions in all of the 2019 season and Davis’ involvement in the front seven that led the nation in tackles for loss are clearly the most significant to step away. And that’s without mentioning Buffalo Bills’ starting receiver Gabe Davis and former Philadelphia Eagle running back Adrian Kills graduating last season on the offensive side.
That’s not to say that the Yellow Jackets don’t have their own adversity to handle. When Head Coach Geoff Collins took over last year, he opted to begin the move from the tradition of the option offense. Those growing pains came in the form of a 3-9 season that featured victories over UM, South Florida, and North Carolina State. If they beat UCF on Saturday, not only will they have toppled a fourth team from the Sunshine State in two seasons, they would have knocked off a preseason ranked team. That’s not just from the Top 25 but from the national conversation. And in doing so, Georgia Tech could propel themselves into the polls.
This means that all the pressure is on the Knights. UCF athletic director Danny White has rebuilt his program in the past five years on a wave of PR and social media unmatched by any other in the nation. Should White’s program fail to dominate in a nationally televised contest, it would surely land a crushing blow to the mission of a spot in the College Football Playoff. On top of that, sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel struggled in three road losses as a first-year starter.
Gabriel was asked about his approach to turning around his road game performance in 2020: “I think now I just know how to approach them”, he responded. “Being a freshman, I lacked experience and that’s something I now have.” UCF’s young field general noted that he’s learned that the key to success in those high-pressure situations is to stay positive regardless of what happens on the field.
If the Knights offensive line can protect the passer, there are plenty of targets to throw the ball to. Tre Nixon looks to be the top player in the corps and stretches the field. With that in mind, that’s not to say his big-bodied counterparts won’t make their mark. 6”5’ 211 lb. Jacob Harris will likely be asked to fill the role left by Davis as a red zone threat while 6’0” 215 lb. Marlon Williams has been a reliable possession receiver for the past two years. And that does not even mention the depth at running back with Greg McCrae, Otis Anderson and Bentavious Thompson.
Conversely, the Yellow Jackets’ freshman under center Jeff Sims seems capable of challenging UCF’s defense. Against the Seminoles last week, he put up 277 yards passing while also leading his squad in rushing yards with 64 on 13 carries. No doubt that Kenny Turnier and the front seven hope to force Simms into repeating his posting of two interceptions. If Turnier and company can disrupt the backfield, a talented set of defensive backs in Brandon Moore, Antwan Collier, Aaron Robinson and Richie Grant should assure that happens even without Gowan.
With momentum building on the line for the 2020 standings, 3:30 pm EST on Saturday has the makings of a fun outing for all.