UCF - Stanford: Five Things to Watch

Watch Listen Live Stats

UCF successfully navigated its first two non-league assignments—and, realistically, the Knights were not really challenged. That resulted in a pair of one-sided decisions. Now Josh Heupel's crew finishes out the pre-American Athletic Conference slate with a home game Saturday against Pac-12 member Stanford followed by a road tilt the following week at ACC entry Pittsburgh. Those assignments firmly suggest Heupel and his staff will be better prepared—and know quite a bit more about their own team—when league play commences Sept. 28.
This week Stanford makes a rare cross country trip to play its first regular-season game in the state of Florida. Stanford's previous experiences in Florida have been bowl games—one each in the Gator, Blockbuster and Orange.
Here are some areas to watch when the Cardinal (1-1, after a #25 preseason rating in the AP poll) squares off against the unbeaten (2-0) and 16th-rated Knights:

  1. Can UCF keep up anywhere near this statistical pace? (We asked this same question last week.) Josh Heupel has no reason to complain, but the devil's advocates suggest it's tough to assign value to the Knights' start when the average margin of victory is 48 points (ranking fourth nationally behind Maryland, Wisconsin and Penn State). UCF's numbers are off the charts (no pun intended) so far in 2019, and that created comfortable victories against both Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic. Offense, defense and everywhere in between, the Knights put up some eye-popping statistical figures that would seem to be tough to maintain. But don't think the Knights won't have fun trying—and don't think Heupel will forget to mention the standards he likes his players to appreciate and measure themselves against.
  2. What's next at quarterback? (We posed this same question last week, too.) Heupel and offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Jeff Lebby offered freshman Dillon Gabriel his first starting assignment last week on the road against Florida Atlantic—and the neophyte responded by helping account for his team's 515 yards of total offense in three periods of play while at the helm for six of the seven UCF touchdown drives. And it's worth noting those half-dozen TD possessions went for 75, 60, 84, 61, 74 and 71 yards—accomplished on only 31 combined plays (so a bit more than five plays per scoring excursion). Veteran Brandon Wimbush did not play versus FAU (after starting the opener against FAMU), but he's available this week. Also back at practice this week has been Darriel Mack Jr., who started the final two games in 2018 after McKenzie Milton's injury but has been sidelined since July by an ankle injury.
  3. A different sort of game. . . . Non-conference play normally has meant a great start for Stanford teams (22 consecutive home non-league victories), yet, by any measure, this is not the typical sort of football game to which Cardinal players are accustomed. Stanford will be a long way from home (the visitors traveled to Orlando Thursday to ensure adjustment), and the weather could be an issue (if not the typically steamy Central Florida heat and humidity, there could be some decent amount of rain Saturday). Plus Stanford coach David Shaw has been outspoken about the notion of his roster dealing with the up-tempo pace at which UCF routinely plays. Certainly, the visitors show up in Orlando with something to prove, coming off a loss at USC last week in which the Trojans scored the final 35 points of the game. All that came without quarterback starter K.J. Costello, who sat out after being knocked out of the opening Cardinal win against Northwestern. Costello is expected back in the starting line-up Saturday at Spectrum Stadium. So expect plenty of eyes from both sets of fans on the quarterback play. 
  4. UCF will have to absorb some blows. Assume Stanford will make some plays and take the fight to the Knights. Heupel expects nothing less. What will be interesting is how UCF responds, how effectively the Knights counterpunch. Stanford, Alabama and Wisconsin are the only three programs in the country that have limited opponents every year in this decade to less than 23 points per game. The Cardinal will be attempting to defeat a ranked opponent on the road for the eighth year in nine seasons (at least one of those in each of those years). For all of the positive UCF numbers in play, Stanford can boast that it ranks sixth nationally in time of possession at 35:50 per game.
  5. Watch what happens up front. Stanford is a team that likes to play a tough, physical style. Recent offensive history shows the Cardinal enjoys both throwing (Andrew Luck) and running (Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love) the football. But this matchup offers some intriguing battles in the trenches—for a UCF offensive line that has been dominant to date in 2019 and a defensive front that leads the country in tackles for loss. How effective will Jordan Johnson and his line-mates be in springing the bevy of Knight scatbacks and protecting whomever plays quarterback? And can the UCF defense continue to be as disruptive as it has in two games so far? The answers to those questions may weave a telling tale by early Saturday evening. And one more contrasting stat—Stanford in two games has forced five turnovers; UCF has yet to turn the ball over in 2019.

And one more for good measure . . .
Cue Aretha Franklin: 'A little respect. . . .' College football experts can endlessly debate the merits of any team's schedule, yet it's safe to say that Stanford represents one of the more tradition-rich programs on the 2019 UCF slate given the Cardinal record as the winningest Pac-12 program this decade. Shaw has taken Stanford teams to four Pac-12 title games and three Rose Bowls in his nine seasons. That means a UCF win would merit attention and credibility.