What the Knights Learned in 2019

UCF's dominant football victory last week against Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl came off by the numbers:
--The Knights came in averaging 43.0 points per game and scored 48. They came to Tampa allowing 22.8 points per game and gave up 25.
--UCF gained 50 yards more than its average, a 536.6-yard mean that already rated among the top four figures in the country.
--Most impressively, the Knights finished with a five-to-zero edge in the turnover category where UCF had been barely above the 50-50 mark in that column all through the regular season.
There were plenty more storylines in Tampa, but they all combined to provide the impressive contingent of Knight fans at Raymond James Stadium plenty to cheer about.
It put a nice bow and ribbon on the best four-year run in program history by just about any measure—but, in particular, a combined 41 victories and (for the first time in Knight annals) four consecutive bowl invitations.
Here are some of the overarching lessons the Knights learned in 2019:

  1. The Knights' offensive production wasn't just good—it was great. UCF finished with a total offense average of 540.46 yards per game. Understand that's the very best figure in the history of Knight football, 10 yards better than the previous single-season high (530.5 in 2017). UCF teams over the last three seasons (including a 522.7-yard average in 2018) have now set the standard for what a Knight offense is supposed to do. But don't be surprised if that record doesn't endure long. The numbers from these last three seasons are far beyond the previous season-high mark (487.7 in 1998). Against Marshall UCF had four consecutive drives that each covered exactly 75 yards. That's the sort of efficiency the Knights (and Knight fans) have now come to expect.
  2. There's life beyond McKenzie Milton. Let's be honest. There were plenty of Knight fans who wondered what to expect at quarterback in the absence of the injured Milton in 2019. Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush? Fiesta Bowl starter Darriel Mack Jr? Even UCF coaches didn't know for sure how much to expect when Dillon Gabriel first enrolled almost a full calendar year ago. But Gabriel delivered in a big way, all the time benefitting from the football tips and general comfort level provided every day by the presence of his buddy and fellow Hawaiian Milton. Gabriel threw for 29 touchdowns (all those in the 10 UCF wins) against only seven interceptions (all those in the three UCF defeats). It was only late in the season when the true freshman finally gained enough of a feel for operating in the pocket that he became effective as a running threat. Imagine how much better he'll be in all areas in 2020 and beyond with a full season of college football now under his belt. Knight fans will love it if Milton, at some point, gets healthy enough to take the field again. In the meantime, there's nothing to worry about with Gabriel on hand.   
  3. The Knights did better in the turnover area than we realized. It's noteworthy that the final three UCF wins (Tulane, USF and Marshall) featured zero Knight turnovers, the third, fourth and fifth times in 2019 that was the case. Despite Josh Heupel's concerns at times in that area, no team in the AAC turned the ball over fewer times than the Knights (14). UCF came into its bowl game ranked 52nd nationally in turnover margin at plus-two. But that perfect (and season-best) five-zip margin against Marshall boosted the season mark to .538 (which would have ranked 28th at the end of the regular season).
  4. UCF has built some depth. Lost to some extent in the Gasparilla Bowl triumph was the fact it came without a group of key regular-season contributors. Heupel opted not to promote the list of those Knights who would not be in uniform (as opposed to helping Marshall with some measure of a game-planning advantage)—yet, in the end, it made no difference. No Gabriel Davis? Marlon Williams caught seven balls for 131 yards, including a 75-yarder for a TD. No Adrian Killins? The Knights still ran for 310 yards and had five backs gain 40 or more yards (led by Greg McCrae's 80 to match Otis Anderson's 143 all-purpose yards). No Brendon Hayes (he led the Knights in sacks in 2019)? UCF pressure kept the Thundering Herd to 44 percent pass completion percentage. No Nevelle Clark? Safeties Richie Grant and Antwan Collier both had interceptions and the Knight defense as a whole forced four turnovers on Marshall's first 27 offensive plays. Although Marshall bell cow running back Brenden Knox ran for 103 yards (on 26 attempts), they were a rather quiet 103 yards. The end result was that the overall UCF depth was more than enough to survive the personnel losses--and that bodes well for 2020 and beyond. 
  5. UCF is in elite company. A postseason victory gives the Knights their third straight 10-win season, a first for UCF. With 35 combined victories over that span, it also puts the Knights in rarified air based on the programs that already have won 10 or more each of the last three years: Clemson (39 combined regular-season wins), Alabama (37), Ohio State (37), Oklahoma (35), Notre Dame (34) and Boise State (32).
  6. The Knights found out they didn't like losing. Don't sleep on the fact UCF has turned in six 10-win seasons in this decade alone. Those 35 wins from 2017-19 certainly also spoiled Knight fans to some extent (with not a single home loss in that span). Plus, the ever-so-close nature of the three 2019 UCF defeats (by a combined seven points) made it hard to forget how easy it would have been to flip-flop all those results:--At Pitt, UCF scored 31 consecutive points and led 31-21 with five minutes remaining in the third period.
    --At Cincinnati, the Knights held leads of 3-0, 6-3 and 16-10 and had a chance for another early TD, only to see Gabe Davis slip near the Bearcat goal, resulting in a Cincinnati interception.
    --At Tulsa, UCF led 28-17 at halftime but managed only a field goal in the final two periods. Heupel, Gabriel and the rest of the Knights beat themselves up over their near-misses—yet the narrow losses illustrate just how close UCF was to yet another really special season.
  7. How about that 2020 opener? UCF fans already are looking forward to next season, when North Carolina comes to Orlando (after walloping Temple in the Military Bowl Friday) to open the campaign. Expect extensive billing for the matchup of two precocious sophomore-to-be quarterbacks in Gabriel and the Tar Heels' Sam Howell, who in 2019 threw for 3,935 yards and 41 TDs (against only seven interceptions, the same number charged to Gabriel). That will be fun to watch.