What the Knights Learned vs. BYU

It was a rather sobering three hours and 25 minutes on the football field for UCF Tuesday night. To the Knights' credit, they had avoided any double-digit defeats of late (none from the start of 2017 through the end of the 2020 regular season). Yet there was little doubt 13th-ranked and once-beaten BYU was the better football team in the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl, from start to finish—and there were multiple reasons for that.
In this crazy, COVID year, cheers to the Knights for being the only American Athletic Conference team to play its schedule without interruption from the virus. No UCF game was postponed or cancelled (very few FBS teams could say that), and the overall effects of COVID were negligible.
Meanwhile, UCF both gained the most yards (per game) in its football history and also allowed the most. That made for some entertaining contests along the way—yet four Knight defeats in 2020 also sent some messages UCF will address in the offseason.
Here are some takeaways, not just from the Boca Raton Bowl but from the 2020 season as a whole, as the Knights begin their look ahead and prep for 2021:

  1. The UCF offense is as productive as they come. This comes as no surprise, but the Knights set all-time records for total yards (per game) and passing yards in a season and scored 42.2 points or more for the fourth straight year. That alone will win a team a lot of football games—and that obviously has played a major role in UCF's combined 41 wins over those four years (only a select handful of teams have done that). With all players awarded an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, the Knights' roster remains in flux—but certainly record-setting quarterback Dillon Gabriel and first-team all-AAC receiver Jaylon Robinson will be among the offensive returnees.
  2. How to solve the elite defenses? UCF faced the best opposing defenses of 2020 in two of its last three games—versus a Cincinnati unit currently ranked 11th (in total yards allowed) and a BYU squad that rates 13th. While game statistics didn't exhibit it, the Cougars in particular made life difficult for Gabriel—flushing him from the pocket, keeping him out of rhythm and seldom allowing open receivers (though he was never sacked, only the second time all year that happened). Gabriel's .467 completion percentage versus BYU marked his lowest of 2020 (next lowest was .531 against Cincinnati) and the big-play absence Tuesday was noted. The longest Knight plays were 21- and 22-yard completions to Jacob Harris—the first time all year Gabriel did not have at least one completion for at least 41 yards. UCF's 23 points versus BYU qualified as a season low, and 13 of those came after the Cougars already had scored 49. 
  3. Lots of personnel on defense. While UCF has prided itself on its defensive depth in recent years--especially on the defensive line—that aspect proved challenging in 2020. Twenty-five different players started at least one game on defense this year—and only two of those (freshman corner Corey Thornton and lineman Anthony Montalvo) started all 10. Of the 11 players who started the opener at Georgia Tech, seven of those players who accounted for 34 tackles in that game were not on the field against BYU. Of UCF's top six tacklers for the season, four did not play in the bowl game. The Knights will seek some greater future lineup continuity on that side of the ball.
  4. It went according to form. There were no real surprises in UCF's 2020 season. Its four defeats came to teams that finished with either more league wins or overall wins (or both), with the four teams currently combining for a 34-6 record (including bowl wins by BYU and Memphis). Still to come are postseason opportunities for Cincinnati and Tulsa. On the other hand, the Knights' six wins came against teams that finished below them in the AAC standings (plus a Georgia Tech team that ended up 3-7). Those six teams finished a combined 17-37 (including a bowl loss by Tulane).   
  5. Roster options. Several UCF players (receiver Marlon Williams and defensive backs Richie Grant and Aaron Robinson) already have indicated they won't be back in Orlando for 2021. A few Knights have noted their plans to return—and a good number of other key contributors have yet to determine their future. Those decisions will play some significant role in determining the looks of the 2021 UCF depth chart.

    And one more for the holidays . . . .
  6. Final team rankings. With multiple bowl games remaining, here's where the Knights stand today in national statistical tables:--Total offense: 2nd at 568.1 (best in UCF history)
    --Total defense: 123rd at 491.8
    --Rushing offense: 25th at 210.7 (third year in a row the Knights have been at that level or higher)
    --Rushing defense: 94th at 192.6
    --Passing offense: 3rd at 357.4 (best in UCF history)
    --Passing defense: 121st at 299.2
    --Scoring offense: 8th at 42.2 (fourth straight year the Knights have been at that level of higher)
    --Scoring defense: 92nd at 33.2

    Other UCF rankings of note include first in fumbles recovered (13), fifth in total first downs (283, with BYU currently tied for the lead with Alabama at 308), seventh in turnover margin (plus-1.2) and 12th in third-down conversions (.487).