UCF was one of the biggest college football stories of 2017. The Knights not only went undefeated during the regular season to win the American Athletic Conference and earn a New Year’s Six berth, but once they got to the Peach Bowl, they beat Auburn 34-27 to preserve their perfect record. The Knights , which was fun at first, but proceeded to get rather annoying as the school and its fans had a tendency to beat you over the head with it for a while.
Still, even when it was annoying, there was something endearing about it.
Anyway, I’m not here to debate UCF’s title claim, or whether or not it’s annoying. I’m here with the hope of trying to identify which team has the best chance to be 2018’s UCF. Which team has the best chance to put on Cinderella’s slipper and wind up annoying you with an imaginary national title?
Here are five candidates to do so in 2018.
5. San Diego State: In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I wanted to put Army in this fifth spot. The problem is that Army is an independent, and it can’t win a Group of Five conference. That’s a big part of being the highest-ranked Group of Five champion!
So instead I’ll go with the team Army just beat in a bowl game. San Diego State loses Rashaad Penny, and that’s certainly a big deal, but Penny replaced Donnel Pumphrey. The Aztecs have Juwan Washington waiting in the wings, and with nonconference games against Stanford and Arizona State, they’ll have a chance to pick up resume wins.
4. Fresno State: We stay in the Mountain West to mention Fresno State. The Bulldogs took a major step forward under Jeff Tedford last season, finishing 10-4 after going 1-11 in 2016. The offense will have quarterback Marcus McMaryion back, as well as its three leading rushers and top receiver KeeSean Johnson. The Bulldogs defense, which was one of the top units in the conference, has eight starters back as well.
3. Boise State: I feel like it would be dishonest to put together a list like this and not include the original Cinderella of the modern era. So, yes, we have three Mountain West teams on a five-team list, and I didn’t see it coming, yet here we are.
I just can’t ignore a team that will have Brett Rypien back for his fourth season as the team’s starting quarterback, as well as leading rusher Alex Mattison. Boise also returns both its offensive and defensive coordinators, which doesn’t happen very often since they tend to be in demand.
The problem Boise will face is that its nonconference opponents might not stack up with a few others here. It has a road game against Oklahoma State, and a road trip to Troy shouldn’t be taken lightly, but UConn and BYU won’t add a lot of weight. Still, what Boise State has that the others don’t is the brand recognition. It’s been in this situation before and has earned trust.
2. UCF: Well, of course I’m going to have the Knights on the list, but I’m not putting them at No. 1. The good news is that McKenzie Milton returns to lead the offense, and he was one of the top quarterbacks in the country last season. UCF also has a couple of games against ACC teams like North Carolina and Pitt, as well as a contest against Florida Atlantic.
The problem is the entire coaching staff will be different. Scott Frost turned things around quickly, but now a new staff is coming in, and they’ll be bringing their own offense as well. Odds are UCF is going to have an adjustment period, and in a conference that’s proven to be the strongest of the G5s in recent years, that could prove fatal.
1. Florida Atlantic: Honestly, would you be surprised if the Owls go undefeated in 2018? This is a team that just went 11-3 last season, including a 9-0 mark against C-USA teams. Plus, not only did the Owls go undefeated against conference opponents, but they won those games by an average of 17.9 points per game. That’s not an insignificant margin!
The Owls will once again be the most talented team in the conference, and they also have two big “prove it” games against Oklahoma and UCF. Even if they lose to the Sooners, a win over UCF would go a long way toward seeing the Owls ranked ahead of the Knights or another possible AAC champion should they win out elsewhere.
Now, if you thought UCF was obnoxious with its national title claim, can you imagine Lane Kiffin if his team manages to do the same?