UCF team preview

Today we're looking at the University of Central Florida as the Knights look to improve on their bowl win last season.

Coach: George O’Leary (112-88 career, 60-55 at UCF)

2012 record: 10-4

Key losses: RB Latavius Murray, DB Kemal Ishmael

Key returnees: QB Blake Bortles, S Clayton Geathers, LB Terrance Plummer

Newcomer to watch: WR Breshad Perriman

Biggest games in 2013: at Penn State (Sept. 14), South Carolina (Sept. 28)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Knights have one of the strongest nonconference slates in the American Athletic, playing Penn State and South Carolina in September. Needing to replace seven of their top 10 tacklers from last season, a challenging schedule early in the season could be too much for Central Florida by the time it gets to its conference opponents. The Knights will lean on Geathers, Plummer and cornerback Brandon Alexander on a young defense that led Conference USA in scoring defense and pass defense last year.

Forecast: In its first year in the American Athletic, Central Florida will have the benefit of an experienced offense. Bortles was named to the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award, which goes to the nation’s most outstanding player. Passing for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, Bortles will have his two top receivers from last year in J.J. Worton and Rannell Hall. Though last year’s leading-rusher Latavius Murray is with the Oakland Raiders now, junior Storm Johnson had 507 rushing yards and four touchdowns last season, expect to step into the No. 1 running back role this year.

Winning its appeal of the NCAA’s one-year postseason ban, UCF will be eligible for the postseason in its inaugural American Athletic season. The Knights were originally issued the ban as part of sanctions levied last July for recruiting violations in football and basketball. “I was very happy that we got the ban rescinded,” O’Leary said. “I always laugh with Coach O'Brien at Penn State; I blamed him, because our case came up right after the Penn State case. I still think the NCAA had their guns blazing at that time.”

The Knights’ difficult nonconference slate will be telling for when UCF plays AAC-favorite Louisville on the road. Picked to finish fourth in the American Athletic in the preseason media poll, the Knights have the benefit of playing South Carolina, Rutgers, UConn and South Florida at home. O’Leary hopes UCF’s nonconference schedule will help to bolster the new league’s profile.

“I think the key thing with this conference is not the conference playing themselves but the nonconference games,” O’Leary said. “You've got to get your share of wins there if you're going to take notice. That's how I look at it.”