5 Things to Know: #13 UCF at Georgia Tech

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Not so long ago UCF was slated to open the 2020 football season in a Friday night home contest against a highly regarded North Carolina team. That one figured to be one of the more intriguing matchups of the opening weekend.
Then on July 29, that game effectively disappeared when the Atlantic Coast Conference announced its teams would play 10 league games and one home non-conference contest.
Then, on Aug. 13, UCF's second listed game--a home contest against Florida International--also disappeared after FIU announced a postponement of all its competitions through mid-September.
Next up? The Knights did their best to add at least one more home game (after also losing a Nov. 7 home contest versus Florida A&M), but it never happened. What had been a Week Three assignment and first road game of the year at Georgia Tech became the season opener.
Here are some areas to watch when the Yellow Jackets square off against the Knights:

  1. Can the Knights keep up this pace? The victories have arrived at a dizzying rate over the last three seasons. UCF's combined 35-4 record (.897) in 2017-18-19 compares impressively with that of programs like Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia (the only others to win 10 or more games all three years). Add to that a 28-game regular-season win streak. UCF may have won "only" 10 games in 2019—but three road defeats by a combined seven points suggest the Knights weren't far from championship form.
  2. What's next for Dillon Gabriel? UCF in 2019 won those 10 games and true freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel did not throw an interception in any of the 10. In UCF's 10 victories, the Knights were a combined plus-13 in turnovers. In UCF's three razor-thin losses, the Knights were a combined minus-seven in turnovers. So an opening assignment on the road gives Gabriel a chance to change that equation. He was a national leader in a handful of NCAA statistical categories as a freshman—and now he has a full season under his belt. Don't expect Gabriel to be surprised by many things.  
  3. The Knights can score points. UCF has scored at least 30 points in 37 of its last 38 games, a national record since the Associated Press poll began in 1936. Last year UCF averaged 43.4 points per game; the year before it was 43.2 points (sixth nationally); the year before that it was a 48.2-point average that led the country. The Knights proved to be the highest scoring team in the nation over those three seasons, based on UCF qualifying as the only team to average at least 43.2 points in each of those seasons. All that scoring happened so fast that UCF ranked 123rd of 128 teams in 2019 in time of possession (26:28 per game). Whether it's running backs Greg McCrae or Otis Anderson or a wide receiver corps led by veteran Tre Nixon, the Knights are confident in their skill-position depth, with several individuals slated to play multi-purpose roles. That UCF crew faces a Yellow Jacket defense that at Florida State last weekend allowed only 3.0 yards per play on the last nine Seminole drives and only 307 net yards all night (after averaging an allowance of 422.9 per game in all of 2019).
  4. What about the UCF defense? A year ago Josh Heupel and his staff were vocal about their intent to shore up a run defense that in 2018 allowed more than 222 yards per game. So defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and his charges improved that number to 146.6 in 2019. The total defense figure improved by 87.6 yards—as the Knights' total defense ranking went from 95th to 32nd (117th to 53rd in rushing defense). A UCF defensive unit that returns six of its top seven tacklers this week goes up against a Georgia Tech offense that returns 96% of its rushing yards from a year ago and 87% of its receiving yards. The Knights will face a true freshman quarterback in Jeff Sims who impressed in his debut Saturday in Tallahassee (23 of 34 passing for 277 yards, 1 TD; 13 rushes for 64 yards) by completing 15 passes in the first half alone (more than Tech had completed in an entire game since 2007) and completing more than any Tech quarterback in a full game since 2005. Sims' completions went to 10 different Yellow Jacket receivers (most by Tech versus an FBS opponent since 2000).
  5. How will Tech handle prosperity? UCF may be the ranked team in this matchup (in terms of votes received, Georgia Tech stood 28th in the AP polls and 26th according to the coaches), but the team people have been talking about this week is Georgia Tech. Multiple Yellow Jackets earned various player-of-the-week honors, as Tech gained more yards at Florida State Saturday than in any game in 2019. It was Tech's first season-opening win in a true road game since 2007 (33-3 at Notre Dame) and its first season-opening win in an ACC road game since 1996 (28-16 at NC State).

UCF will be looking to end a Tech streak that has seen the Yellow Jackets win 13 straight home openers—as the Knights look for their third road win in an Atlantic Coast Conference home stadium (also at NC State in 2007 and at Louisville in 2013). Of greater note: A UCF win would be the Knights' fifth win in their last seven games versus non-conference Power 6 opponents (victories in 2017 at Maryland and vs. #7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl, 2018 vs. Pittsburgh, 2019 vs. Stanford).
The Orlando half of this home-and-home series was set for 2017 but was cancelled by Hurricane Irma. The Yellow Jackets now will come to the Bounce House in 2022.
Don't forget these two programs share a former head coach in George O'Leary who this weekend will be inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. O'Leary coached at Tech from 1995-2001 and at UCF from 2004-15. He's honored with a sculpture adjacent to the press box entrance of the Bounce House in Orlando. O'Leary was inducted into the UCF Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019.
There's no shortage of other UCF connections on the Georgia Tech staff:
--Tech athletics director Todd Stanbury previously held that same role at UCF (2012-15).
--Tech head coach Geoff Collins was the UCF linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator in 2008-09 under O'Leary. He also was a Tech graduate assistant in 1999 and 2000 (also under O'Leary) when the two teams played. The Knights also know Collins as Temple's head coach in 2017-18 (UCF defeated the Owls in both those seasons).
--Tech assistant head /offensive line coach Brent Key was a UCF assistant coach from 2005-14 (at different times coaching offensive linemen, tight ends and special teams and holding the titles of recruiting coordinator, assistant head coach and offensive coordinator).
--Tech defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Andrew Thacker was at UCF in 2008-09 (as a graduate assistant) and 2015 (coaching safeties).
--Tech quality control specialist/offense Will Glover was at UCF in 2013 (offensive quality control) and 2014 (graduate assistant).