Has a losing season ever felt this good?
Sure, the Knights went 6-7, dropping the Cure Bowl to Arkansas State in brutally hard-to-watch fashion. Adding to the post-bowl funk was the fact that the Knights had also dropped their last two regular season games. But progress from the utter disaster of 2015 was obvious. It’s great to see this many steps forward from a winless and ugly 2015.
It turned out that UCF was a middling AAC team in 2016. The Knights beat the bad teams they played, and proved unable to beat any good ones (a fact we started harping on before the Tulsa game and unfortunately were never proven wrong). UCF’s wins came against SC State (5-6, and as an FCS program not ranked in S&P+), FIU (4-8, 120th in S&P+), ECU (3-9, 100th in S&P+), UConn (3-9, 123rd in S&P+), Tulane (4-8, 106th in S&P+), and Cincinnati (4-8, 86th in S&P+). Hey, if you’re a 5-6 program or worse, don’t cross the Knights, amiright?
There were near-misses against good teams of course. The Knights spotted P.J. Walker and Temple a miracle drive that ended in a touchdown pass with one second left in the game. And UCF collapsed down the stretch against Houston to waste a lead and lose 24-31. Plus there was a double overtime loss in McKenzie Milton’s first college game ever against fellow mediocre team Maryland.
But being a middling team is so, so much better than where the Knights fell the previous season. In 2015, UCF couldn’t beat FIU in the home opener. Or FCS Furman in the third game of the season (the Paladins finished with a losing record). And the Knights spotted beleaguered Tulane their only win of the season. That doesn’t even touch on the blowouts to unimpressive teams: a 37 point loss to UConn (who finished with a losing record), a 37 point loss to ECU (also finished with a losing record), and a 45 point loss to Cincinnati (finished a game above .500). Or the blowouts against good teams like Houston (48 point loss) or USF (41 point loss).
Winless to bowlbound in consecutive years is a rare feat. For the Knights to get to 6-7 a year after that misery is a testament to this coaching staff and the buy-in from players. We saw Scott Frost-recruited freshman like McKenzie Milton (starting QB since the Maryland game, except for injury), Jawon Hamilton (“co-starting” and then starting RB), and Adrian Killins (explosive threat at RB) make a difference. And on defense, we saw players who played little under George O’Leary excel. AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin is the obvious example, and was clearly better utilized at linebacker than his prior position of safety. And he’s not the only example (5’9” redshirt senior Mark Rucker, anyone?).
Now, was some improvement from 2015 to 2016 virtually certain as long as the Knights could avoid having a bizarre injury curse for the second year in a row? Sure. But that doesn’t diminish how impressed I am with the rebuilding job by Frost and his staff. Check out the numbers:
- Overall Defense
o Rank in yards per game improved from 114th to 39th
o S&P+ rank improved from 108th to 30th
- Rushing Defense
o Rank in yards per game improved from 100th to 62nd
o S&P+ rank improved from 105th to 79th
- Passing Defense
o Rank in yards per game improved from 110th to 28th
o S&P+ improved from 108th to 19th
And unremarkable, but still a bit improved:
- Overall Offense
o Rank in yards per game improved from 128th to 113th
o S&P+ rank improved from 127th to 117th
- Rushing Offense
o Rank in yards per game improved from 127th to 104th
o S&P+ improved from 128th to 120th
- Passing Offense
o Rank in yards per game improved from 102nd to 89th
o S&P+ improved from 122nd to 108th
Obviously that’s a turnaround driven by the defense, so much credit to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. One would have hoped for more progress with an offensive-minded head coach.
So there will be much to improve for 2017. The offense continues to need help, especially the offensive line. Quarterback play must be much improved, but I take heart that this really should have been, and was intended to be, a redshirt year for Milton. If improvement can be had in these areas, UCF has the running backs and wide receivers to take advantage. And this staff has shown the aggressiveness on offense that one wants to see – I’ve loved the choices to go for it on fourth down and the two point conversions.
The 2017 defense will likely be dicier than it was this year. Say farewell to UCF’s second through sixth leading tacklers. Say farewell to the secondary. Happily the Knights return Shaquem Griffin, undoubtedly the most productive player on either side of the ball. The defensive line will also be back. And I like what we can expect to see out of Pat Jasinski and Chequan Burkett with more playing time. Burkett played well in 2015 and was the team’s third leading tackler.
I believe there is much to look forward to next season and 2016 has provided plenty of reasons to believe in Scott Frost. As happy as someone can be with a losing season, I am with this one.
 Though one the Knights have done before, in George O’Leary’s first two years.