Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 1 Central Florida.
You lucky, ingenious bastards.
Two years ago, when we first rolled out the always-behind Deadspin 25, you, the readers, voted Central Florida as the No. 1 team—the Knights were absolute dogshit that year, finishing a magnificent, too-good-to-be-scripted 0-12. Then, you fuckers did it again last year. And, thanks to some miracle worker named Scott Frost, the Knights not only won a game, but six of them, earning themselves a spot in college football’s overstuffed postseason.
Heading into this year’s Deadspin 25, I was encouraged by my editors to encourage Deadspin voters to select another team as their champions, which, futilely, I did; Deadspin readers being who they are inevitably told me to fuck off, and rather than just vote UCF No. 1, stuffed the ballot for the entire AAC. Initially, I scoffed, believing this would be yet another middling team to write about, taking solace in the fact that the Knights had at least improved, but not setting my bar any higher than another meaningless bowl appearance.
Then came this past weekend, when Central Florida was slated to face off against the darlings of the AAC, the Memphis Tigers. While South Florida’s the conference’s clear front-runner, Mike Norvell’s squad had acquired the coveted runner-up slot behind one of the most entertaining quarterback-receiver duos in the entire FBS, a pair that just two weeks prior out-dueled Josh Rosen and UCLA.
Come this past weekend, though, Memphis got fucking washed. UCF beat the brakes off a defense that already looked suspect; Saturday, this showed in the form of a Knights attack that ended with 350 rushing yards to constitute the 603 total yards of offense. Now, the Knights—one season removed from being winless—rank seventh in the nation in both points scored (46.3) and points allowed (13.3). As I type this, hands trembling at the thought of the prescient abilities of the Deadspin readership, Central Florida is 3-0, already halfway to its 2016 win total and fresh off an upset, stomp-down victories over a Maryland squad that embarrassed Texas, and another over what was supposedly the second-best team in the American Athletic Conference. South Florida should be shaking in its damn boots right about now.
Of course, now that UCF’s retaking its spot as a major, top-ranked college football program, it bears reviewing how, like other major, top-ranked college football programs, the Knights’ administration lacks any sense of morals or subtlety when it comes to carrying itself as a successful sports business operation. The first year the Knights were declared the nation’s top team was George O’Leary’s last year at the helm—he spent 10 seasons there, taking the program to new heights, cracking the 10-win mark four times by the time his inglorious finale came.
Not a moment too soon either, for the asshole ended his career as a god at the previously unknown program, earning a statue despite the fact he only landed at Central fucking Florida because he got himself fired for lying on his résumé to Notre Dame, and then got himself in deeper shit at UCF when multiple players reported that he screamed and cussed at Ereck Plancher during drills the day Plancher died at a team workout. O’Leary later spoke at Plancher’s funeral, but would continue his employment at UCF and be paid $2 million for his work on the aforementioned 0-12 season while the Plancher family had its wrongful death payout slashed from $10 million to $200,000, because despite the fact that it’s not subject to public records requests due to it being a private arm of the athletics department, the UCF Athletics Association was determined by a Florida state appeals court to be part of UCF and thus subject to a $200,000 cap on state agencies. This cap for a program that built a goddamn lazy river, like the media’s complicit role in O’Leary’s deification and UCF’s active decision to continue fighting the Plancher family in court even nine years later, is fucking shameful.
And like a major, top-ranked, morally compromised college football program, the Knights are playing some damn good football to take your mind off all that bothersome background noise!
Entering the 2017 season, UCF was picked to finish among the bottom of the AAC. The Knights made great leaps in 2016 under Frost and new defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, and the offense finally gave itself a chance—after topping 20 points just twice in O’Leary’s final season, the Knights managed it 10 times last year. So far, this year’s UCF team, on both sides of the ball, has taken what worked last season, tweaked and perfected it, and then carried out its stated gameplan beautifully against all three opponents they’ve faced so far.
The biggest constant is under center, where quarterback McKenzie Milton returns to run the offense. Milton was fine last season—he completed 57.7 percent of his passes and had a 10:7 touchdown-interception ratio while Frost worked in a couple other guys into the rotation. This season, Milton’s stepped up in every measurable way. In three weeks, he’s tossed five scores to one pick, completed 66.7 percent of his passes, and bumped up his yards per rush from 1.6 to 10.9 while leading the team in total rushing yards. Milton’s got a committee of backs behind him, starting with Adrian Killins, and a strong trio of wideouts in Dredrick Snelson, Jordan Akins, and Tre’Quan Smith; make no mistake—this offense and all four of those talented skills players are fueled and bettered by a sophomore quarterback doing what absolutely needed to be done and making significant strides in his game against meaningful competition. These guys flexed their muscles when they went on the road and roasted the Terrapins; with the next meaningful game three weeks away, I expect Milton to be considered among the AAC’s best by the time he gets his shot at downing Navy.
As impressive as Milton’s growth has been, though, it’s this defense that really grabs you when you watch them play. Beat writers covering Maryland and Memphis both chalked it up to sloppy play on the part of the losing teams—yes, Central Florida is better than we gave them credit for, they say, but offensively, these supposedly better teams were just a mess. Thing is, that’s a result, not a cause. Even with the secondary being forced to completely revamp itself after losing corner Shaquill Griffin to the NFL and others to graduation, the Knights have been lights out against two offenses that hung 45-plus points on AP-ranked Power Five teams. Maryland managed just 10 points on its home field; Memphis did the Terps exactly three points better, scoring just 13. Keep in mind, these are offenses I praised just two weeks prior specifically for logging impressive early-season performances. Central Florida’s front seven, led by an impressive linebackers corps starting with outside linebackers Pat Jasinski and Chequan Burkett, is holding teams to 83.7 yards rushing and allowing just 0.7 rushing scores per game—this bunch is not to be trifled with or underestimated.
The secondary is headlined by safeties Kyle Gibson and Tre Nelson, while recent transfer Mike Hughes—as in, two weeks before the season—has starred at the corner spot, already logging three defended passes, one forced fumble, and one interception returned for a touchdown despite the limited time of preseason team prep. The UCF defensive backfield is somehow just as entertaining and nearly as effective as last year’s unit, and that one included three players that had a shot at NFL rosters this fall. This is obviously great news for Frost and Chinander; as for the rest of the pass-happy AAC... well, like I said, South Florida may want to start game-planning for that season finale now.
With his twin brother off playing opposite Richard Sherman in Seattle, Shaquem Griffin is on his own for the first time in his college career—thus far, he’s handled himself fairly well for a one-handed linebacker, so one can reason he’ll be fine, even without his brother hogging all the spotlight with his sweet interceptions and tipped passes.
Last year, Griffin had the honor of being UCF’s guy to know and hot damn did he live up to the billing. He led UCF in tackles for loss with 20 and did the same with sacks, logging 11.5, all while being an effective run-stopper to the tune of 92 total tackles. Not that he’s let it slow him down, but Griffin lost his left hand from the wrist down when he was four years old, due to amniotic band syndrome; unlike Shaquill, who was a star the moment he stepped on campus, Shaquem had to spend three years grinding on the practice squad before he got his shot to start. You can watch this great video or check out this feature to learn more about how a young Florida kid figured out how to cope with an amputation and then become one of the best things about Group of Five football—meanwhile, he’ll be camped out in some poor AAC team’s backfield, hopefully proving NFL scouts as wrong as the ones in college that wrote him off five years ago.
Central Florida has a pair of impressive wins already on its slate, and with a perfect run, could knock off Charlie Strong’s South Florida, the only other team capable of rivaling them in the AAC East. That being said, road games at SMU, Navy, and Temple will be a tricky trio of victories to pull off, but so was going into Maryland and leaving with the Terps on the bottoms of their boots. Honestly, UCF has no shot at making the playoff, as I don’t think the strength of schedule isn’t quite there to convince the playoff committee, though a third-consecutive No. 1 ranking in The Only Poll That Matters might push them over the top. Still, if the Knights aren’t bullshittin’ me and are actually as good as they’ve seemed through three weeks, then a New Year’s bowl is definitely in the realm of possibilities—a lot has to go right and they’re only three weeks in, but from what I’ve seen so far, I’m not sure I can write off anything with this program.
Scott Frost thinks he’s a funny guy and occasionally tells fat jokes that almost certainly didn’t happen, but he hasn’t run a player to death or lied about a graduate degree, so he’s an improvement in my book and, as of now, not a dick.
Aug. 31: FIU (W 61-17)
Sept. 23: @ Maryland (W 38-10)
Sept. 30: Memphis (W 40-13)
Oct. 7: Cincinnati
Oct. 14: East Carolina
Oct. 21: @ Navy
Nov. 4: @ SMU
Nov. 11: UConn
Nov. 18: @ Temple
Nov. 24: USF