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Which former AAC team is best poised for Big 12 success in 2023?

What expectations should Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF fans have for their inaugural Big 12 seasons?

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Central Florida Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

On July 1, the Big 12 will officially expand its membership by four. It’s been a long and exciting process for BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, which have waited since their September 2021 invitations to transition into this new conference.

BYU arrives from independent status, but the other three members spent the last decade battling in the AAC as some of the conference’s most successful teams over the timeframe. Cincinnati qualified for two New Year’s Six bowls, including the 2021 College Football Playoff. UCF posted 25 consecutive wins in 2017 and 2018, including a 2017 Peach Bowl victory which resulted in an NCAA-recognized national championship claim. And Houston was one win away from perfection in 2015, cracking the final AP Poll top 10 with a Peach Bowl win over Florida State.

Collectively, the soon-to-be-Big 12 triumvirate of AAC teams claimed 10 AP Top 25 finishes, five AP Top 10 finishes, five New Year’s Six appearances, two New Year’s Six victories, and five of the eight AAC Championship Game trophies.

What’s next? Moving conferences comes with varying degrees of success — just ask the Big 12’s two most recent additions. TCU fell from 11-2 to 7-6 when moving from the Mountain West to the Big 12 in 2012. West Virginia rode a similar speed bump when traveling from the Big East, watching its record slide from 10-3 to 7-6 that same season.

Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF all finished unranked last year, but posted respectable seasons in the 8 to 9 win range. So based on returning and new personnel, which program looks most poised for instant success in the Big 12? Let’s review the candidates.

Cincinnati Bearcats

2022 recap: 9-4, 6-2 AAC. Lost Fenway Bowl to Louisville, 24-7.

NCAA Football: James Madison at Louisville
Scott Satterfield will serve as Cincinnati’s head coach to replace Luke Fickell. Satterfield coached Louisville to three bowl games in four seasons.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

What’s gone? Of the three AAC teams transitioning to the Big 12, Cincinnati left the most luggage behind. The Bearcats are two seasons removed from the only College Football Playoff appearance in AAC history, but the remnants of that season are suddenly sparse. Head coach Luke Fickell, the winningest coach in program history, darted to Wisconsin once the Bearcats were eliminated from AAC title contention, and a heap of transfers shortly followed. Offensive linemen Jake Renfro and Joe Huber, as well as wide receiver Will Pauling, all traced Fickell’s footsteps on the trail to Madison, WI.

Other notable transfers include starting quarterback Ben Bryant, who transferred out of the program for the second time in three seasons after boomeranging back from Eastern Michigan. Meanwhile, Jaheim Thomas, the team’s third leading tackler and an effective run stopper from the outside linebacker position, is now an Arkansas Razorback. And wide receivers Jadon Thompson and Nick Mardner (fourth and fifth in receptions) landed at Louisville and Auburn, respectively.

The NFL Draft claimed each of Cincinnati’s top three pass catchers from 2022 — wide receivers Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker and tight end Josh Whyle. The 2023 Bearcats will also operate without linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., the first unanimous All-American in program history. Pace was pivotal in spearheading the Bearcats’ pass rush with 9.0 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss last season, as the key cog responsible for Cincinnati’s 2.7 sacks per game (t-27th in FBS). Pace was shockingly undrafted, and other notable undrafted free agents from the 2022 Bearcats include All-AAC tackle James Tunstall and leading rusher Charles McClelland.

NCAA Football: Navy at Cincinnati
Tyler Scott’s downfield presence was a significant part of Cincinnati’s offense in 2022. He led the team with 899 receiving yards on a 16.6 average.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The receiver group took the most significant hit on offense by losing a stunning 95.4 percent of production. Defensively, the secondary which produced the nation’s 11th ranked passing defense in 2022 suffered a similar blow. First Team All-AAC cornerback Ja’Quan Sheppard departed to Maryland in the portal, while cornerback Arquon Bush and safety Ja’Von Hicks graduated from the program. Sheppard and Bush led the team in pass deflections, while Hicks ranked first on the Bearcat defense in interceptions.

Lastly, losing kicker Ryan Coe to Cincinnati could be significant in close games if a viable replacement is not found. The Bearcats struggled immensely in the kicking game from 2016-21, failing to kick better than 75 percent each season, so Coe’s 19-of-23 stat-line was certainly an under-appreciated aspect of the 2022 campaign.

What’s back? Viewers of the Fenway Bowl immediately grasped the severity of Cincinnati’s transfer portal situation. The Cardinals coughed up four turnovers that game, yet still skated by a youthful and inexperienced Bearcats squad in 24-7 fashion.

Not much remains of the 2023 Bearcats offense at the skill positions or on the offensive line. Center Gavin Gerhardt is the only returning starter on the entire offensive unit. Corey Kiner (362 yards, 5 touchdowns), Ryan Montgomery (270 yards, 5 touchdowns), and Myles Montgomery (120 yards, 8.6 yards per carry) boast enough experience where the run game shouldn’t be too great of a concern though. However, the passing game presents more questions. Quarterback Evan Prater started the Tulane and Louisville games, faring 17-of-41 for 185 yards in those contests, and he’ll look to take a leap this offseason when competing for the starting job with transfer Emory Jones.

But not all is grim on this inexperienced squad, as there is one area where Cincinnati is absolutely loaded — the defensive line. Dontay Corleone is one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the sport and he garnered Third Team AP All-American honors in his very first season playing college football. All-Big 12 honors are the expectation for the 6’2”, 320 pound nose tackle who clogs the middle as well as anyone else in the FBS. He lines up adjacent to a rising star in Jowon Briggs, who collected an impressive 61 tackles and 3.0 sacks from the defensive tackle slot. Also operating on this formidable line is Malik Vann, who missed significant time with a pectoral injury last year but served as an instrumental starter on the 2021 CFP team.

NCAA Football: Navy at Cincinnati
Dontay Corleone is expected to be a day one star in the Big 12 at nose tackle. The All-American posted a 2022 stat-line of 45 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries.
Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

On the next level of defense lines up Deshawn Pace, the brother of Ivan who serves as Cincinnati’s leading returning tackler with 61 takedowns in 2022. Deshawn’s coverage instincts are stellar for the offensive linebacker position and he picked off a team-high four passes during the 2021 College Football Playoff run. And speaking of pass coverage, Bryon Threats will be essential to zone coverage as an emerging safety with 58 tackles and two interceptions in a breakout campaign.

On special teams, punter Mason Fletcher has as much All-American potential as anyone on the team aside from Corleone, earning Third Team AP All-American honors as a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2022.

What’s new? The Luke Fickell era was the most prosperous time for Cincinnati football, and the Bearcats posted an astounding 53-11 record over his five seasons, complete with two AAC titles, two New Year’s Six appearances, and a College Football Playoff berth. But the Scott Satterfield era is officially underway in Cincinnati as the follow-up act. Satterfield posted a 25-24 record in four seasons at Louisville, but prior to that somewhat average stint, he transformed Appalachian State from an FCS program to a Sun Belt juggernaut.

Satterfield’s arrival coincided with an onslaught of former Louisville players committing to the new Big 12 institution. Guard Luke Kandra and outside linebacker Dorian Jones weren’t full-time starters at Louisville, but they bring valuable experience into the program and could be No. 1 guys on the depth chart come August. Wide receivers Dee Wiggins and Braden Smith carry a combined 30 games of starting experience to a completely revamped receiving corps, which is in desperate need a veteran boost. That tandem will be complemented by Washington State’s Donovan Ollie, an expected Week 1 starter with 491 yards and three touchdowns in his final year with the Cougars.

When a coaching change occurs in this age of the transfer portal, it often signifies a complete roster overhaul. Cincinnati opens its 2023 slate at home against Eastern Kentucky of the FCS, and that game could see as many as six or seven transfers starting on offense and four transfers manning the defensive lineup.

Outside of the aforementioned Louisville receivers and Ollie, FCS transfer linemen Trevor Radosevich and Phillip Wilder could play a significant role protecting Cincinnati’s new starting quarterback. The quarterback in question will either be incumbent Evan Prater or journeyman transfer Emory Jones, depending on how the fall camp competition pans out.

Jones had previous stops at Florida and Arizona State with varying degrees of success, but the hope for Cincinnati is to utilize him as a masterful dual threat similar to how Satterfield employed Malik Cunningham at Louisville. As Florida’s primary starter in 2021, Jones fired for 2,734 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions at a 65 percent clip while rushing for 759 yards. However, his rushing numbers took a significant tumble behind a struggling Arizona State line which surrendered 21 sacks in Jones’ eight appearances last year, so structuring an effective line is the offense’s top priority.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington State
One season after transferring from Florida, Emory Jones started seven contests at Arizona State last season, throwing for 1,533 yards and seven touchdowns.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Another transfer expected to provide day one contributions is former Western Kentucky tight end Joey Beljan, who aims to fill the dual vacancies left by Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor. In the secondary, Arizona State safety and return specialist D.J. Taylor, and Florida cornerback Jordan Young should provide valuable depth and potential starting roles. But possibly the biggest home run the Bearcats hit in the portal is the hopeful Ivan Pace Jr. replacement in Daniel Grzesiak. The edge rusher tallied 13 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2022 at Utah State, and surrounding him with a talented defensive line could free up even more pass rush lanes for the ex-Mountain West star.

Expectations verdict: Cincinnati is the biggest question mark of the three AAC squads transitioning to the Big 12. It’s a program losing a valuable coach in Luke Fickell, so Scott Satterfield must guide a team heavily concocted of transfers with only one offensive starter returning. The Dontay Corleone-led front seven should be one of the stronger units in the Big 12, and the Bearcats should be expected to thrive in lower-scoring games led by their trademark defense — a unit which has finished top 25 in fewest points allowed for five consecutive seasons. The revamped secondary might present some questions, but the pressure applied by the front seven could establish a symbiotic relationship with the unit. But the offense fared 81st in yards per game in 2022 and Cincinnati is essentially starting with a blank slate there. If Satterfield and his offensive staff can unlock a new level of Emory Jones, Cincinnati has potential to break above .500 and continue its 5-year bowl streak. Although Cincinnati avoids the top three Big 12 teams from 2022 in TCU, Kansas State, and Texas, the Bearcats take a Week 2 road trip to Pittsburgh, which isn’t the friendliest game toward their win total. So in a tougher conference with substantial retooling, this season could come with growing pains the Bearcats haven’t experienced since 2017 when Fickell fared 4-8 in his first season on campus.

Houston Cougars

2022 recap: 8-5, 5-3 AAC. Defeated Louisiana in Independence Bowl, 23-16.

NCAA Football: Houston at East Carolina
Dana Holgorsen has produced a 20-7 record with two bowl victories in his past two seasons at Houston.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

What’s gone? The most glaring absence when looking at the 2023 Cougars’ roster is the quarterback-to-wide receiver connection which defined this program for three seasons. Clayton Tune (third in passing touchdowns in 2022) was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and Tank Dell (first in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2022) was drafted by the Houston Texans, so Dana Holgorsen’s team must move on without its two superstars.

Other offensive pieces missing include wide receiver KeSean Carter, who ranked second on the team in receiving yards last fall, running back Ta’Zhawn Henry, who produced 359 rushing yards on 88 carries, and tight end Christian Trahan, who doubled as a solid blocker and reliable receiving threat.

The Cougars didn’t lose too much to the transfer portal. Running back Alton McCaskill starred as a true freshman in 2021 with 961 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, but the freshman phenom tore his ACL in spring ball last April. But the Cougars unfortunately will not enjoy the running back’s long-awaited return as he recently transferred to Colorado.

Starting left guard Cam’Ron Johnson — a First Team All-AAC honoree — departed for Missouri, starting right tackle Lance Robinson transferred to Louisville, and outside linebacker Mannie Nunnery landed at Florida. Other than those three, no primary starters from 2022 entered the portal.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 American Championship Game - Houston at Cincinnati
First Team All-AAC selection Cam’Ron Johnson was Houston’s most significant offseason transfer, creating a void at the left guard spot.
Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensively, the Cougars lost a slew of important contributors to graduation and the NFL Draft. Defensive end Derek Parish was on an All-American pace before a torn bicep injury hampered his season four weeks in last September, but the star pass rusher is now a Jacksonville Jaguar. Free safety Gervarrius Owens also warranted an NFL Draft selection after two All-AAC selections as a Cougar. Owens ranked second on the team in tackles in 2022, and unfortunately for Houston, eight of its top nine tacklers are no longer with the program — demonstrating how senior-heavy the team was last fall.

Inside linebacker Donavan Mutin, the heart and soul of the defense, will be a substantial loss after churning out a team-high 85 tackles in addition to 5.0 tackles for loss and four pass breakups last year. Other notable departed seniors include formidable pass rushers D’Anthony Jones (8.0 sacks, 13.5 TFL) and Atlias Bell (3.5 sacks, 7.0 TFL), cornerbacks Art Green and Jayce Rogers, and safety Thabo Mwaniki.

And moving on to special teams, Houston shuffled between Bubba Baxa and Kyle Ramsey as placekickers last season, but the Cougars must find a replacement at the position for 2023 as both kickers are no longer on the roster.

What’s back? While Houston lost plenty of its star senior power from 2022, the Cougars still possess a myriad of returning starters on both sides of the ball heading into year five of the Dana Holgorsen era. Wide receiver Matthew Golden comes with the most star potential, and he’ll rise into the No. 1 receiver void left by Tank Dell’s departure. Golden was spectacular as a true freshman, specifically in November when he corralled 19 receptions for 334 yards and five touchdowns in a 4-game stretch. He’ll be surrounded by Joseph Manjack IV and Sam Brown in the receiving corps, who should provide ample support to a loaded position group.

The rushing attack is in good hands with the top two running backs from 2022 suiting up for another season. Brandon Campbell was the primary workhorse last fall with a team-high 90 carries which were exchanged for 435 yards, and Stacy Sneed emerged as an explosive threat late in the season with 501 rushing yards on 6.6 yards per carry. Both running backs were frequently utilized as pass catchers as well and should continue to be in 2023.

The offensive line returns three primary starters from 2022, most notably Patrick Paul who was recognized with First Team All-AAC honors at left tackle last year. Familiar faces Jack Freeman and Reuben Unije occupy the center and right tackle positions, respectively, while Tank Jenkins — a full-time starter from two seasons ago — likely returns to the top of the depth chart again at right guard.

As mentioned above, Houston lost eight of its nine leading tacklers from last season with inside linebacker Jamal Morris as the only one back. Morris, a former Oklahoma transfer, totaled 42 tackles to tie for sixth on the team, and the inside linebacker position is even further bolstered by the presence of Malik Robinson, who comes with a new slate of health this fall after suffering a torn pectoral last September, which held him out of 11 games.

The defining feature of Houston’s defense under fifth-year defensive coordinator Doug Belk has always been the line, which goes by the nickname “Sack Ave.” for its pass-rushing prowess. Returning members on this unit include Nelson Ceaser, Sedrick Williams, and Chidozie Nwankwo. Ceaser and Williams combined for 17 tackles for loss in 2022, while Nwankwo commanded substantial attention as the nose tackle anchoring a unit fresh off contributing 2.4 sacks per game.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston
Nelson Ceaser and Jamal Morris are Houston’s top two returning tacklers from the 2022 season.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In the secondary, Alex Hogan and Jalen Emery are the incumbent Cougars expected to retain starting roles. Hogan enjoyed a stellar start last fall with 10 pass deflections in six contests before a season-ending knee injury brought it all to a halt, while Emery stepped up in Hogan’s place to break up seven passes across Houston’s final four outings.

What’s new? Overall, the transfer portal was a net success for Dana Holgorsen and the Cougars, which landed impressive talent without suffering from monumental losses. The transfer which generates the most attention is quarterback Donovan Smith, who coincidentally led a comeback victory over the Cougars last September when serving as Texas Tech’s lead signal caller. Smith has previous success in this conference, posting three 300+ yard performances against Big 12 competition — including two against ranked opponents. He erased a 14-point deficit last year to defeat Texas in a 331-yard, 2-touchdown performance, and has displayed impressive rushing capabilities — which is important for a Cougar team whose No. 1 rusher was its quarterback in 2022.

Many of the skill position players acquired from the portal were bona fide starters at their prior stops. Tony Mathis Jr. led West Virginia with 562 rushing yards last season, Joshua Cobbs ranked first among Wyoming receivers with 406 yards, and Stephon Johnson played a supporting role as a true freshman with 17 receptions and 293 yards as an emerging deep threat at Oklahoma State. Even though the Cougars return enough talent at the running back and receiver positions, all three transfers should be prominently featured in an offense which ranked 17th in scoring and 25th in yardage a year ago.

Houston added plenty of Big 12 talent on offense through the portal, including Oklahoma State wide receiver Stephon Johnson.
Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the returning talent and transfers weren’t already impressive enough, Houston recruited excellently at the running back and receiver positions, landing two 4-star receivers (Mikal Harrison-Pilot and Jonah Wilson) and a 4-star halfback (Parker Jenkins). The program has been friendly to true freshmen skill position players in terms of playing time, allowing Matthew Golden and Alton McCaskill to thrive immediately out of high school over the past two seasons.

Defensive lineman Justin Benton was Houston’s most heralded recruit on the defensive side of the ball and could be a welcome addition to “Sack Ave.” Other new faces on the defense include outside linebacker David Ugwoegbu — Oklahoma’s second-leading tackler with 109 takedowns on his 2022 résumé. Ugwoegbu certainly fills the vacancy created by Mannie Nunnery’s transfer and allows Houston to field an experienced linebacking corps.

The secondary was the weakest aspect of Houston’s defense last season, permitting the 10th most passing yards and fourth most passing touchdowns per game in the FBS. The Cougars addressed these struggles by rebuilding through the transfer portal. Former New Mexico safety AJ Haulcy should provide much-needed assistance as a do-it-all defender. Haulcy picked off two passes and forced two fumbles as a true freshman in Albuquerque in addition to producing 87 tackles — including a 24-tackle performance against Fresno State (the most single-game tackles by an FBS player since 2018). The former Lobo is joined in the secondary by a pair of incoming cornerbacks in Isaiah Hamilton and Malik Fleming, who accrued significant starting experience at Texas Southern and East Carolina, respectively.

Expectations verdict: Houston feels like the biggest wildcard of the AAC newcomers for year one in the Big 12. The Cougars lost a heap of star talent from 2022, including the Clayton Tune and Tank Dell connection which defined the offense for years. But Dana Holgorsen reloaded quite well with an interesting mix of incumbent contributors, viable transfers, and true freshmen from Holgorsen’s second highest-ranked recruiting class in five years. The non-conference schedule is manageable with UTSA, Rice, and Sam Houston as the opponents. The Big 12 schedule is quite favorable as well with five home games, and Houston only needs to leave the Lone Star State for trips to Kansas State and UCF in 2023. How Donovan Smith fares in his first full season as a starter will dictate how Houston performs against this schedule. The skill position players should stack up well against Big 12 defenses, but Houston does present questions on the defensive side as well. The secondary cannot replicate the disastrous results of last year, and the pass rush must learn to thrive without Derek Parish and D’Anthony Jones. Qualifying for a bowl game is definitely on the table, but in order to reach that 6-win mark, the Cougars will have to prove they have the mettle to handle a week-to-week Big 12 schedule, which was not the case last season when they dropped consecutive games to Texas Tech and Kansas in non-conference play.

UCF Knights

2022 recap: 9-5, 6-2 AAC. Lost Military Bowl to Duke, 30-13.

Military Bowl Presented by Peraton - UCF v Duke
Gus Malzahn produced his second-consecutive 9-win season in two years at UCF.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

What’s gone? Going back to the Scott Frost days, the Knights were always renowned for electrifying, hyper-speed top 10 offenses. But one of the architects to UCF’s 8-2 start last fall was defensive coordinator Travis Williams. His Knights did not concede more than 21 points through their first eight contests, but the highly-touted coordinator is no longer with the program as he accepted the same gig at Arkansas last December — and his move coincided with the transfer of several key defensive starters. Inside linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste (52 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4 PBU) and nickelback Justin Hodges (40 tackles, 5 PBU, 2 FR) relocated to Ole Miss, while cornerback Davonte Brown (30 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PBU) wound up at Miami (FL).

Williams wasn’t the only major assistant to depart the program, however. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey took the same position at North Carolina after leading UCF to 16th nationally in yards per game last fall. On Lindsey’s side of the ball, significant departures include a pair of Second Team All-AAC selections which the Knights must replace. Center Matt Lee rapidly ascended into one of the best interior linemen in the conference, but he transferred 240 miles south to Miami (FL), while deep threat wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe (MVP of the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl) takes his fleet-footed speed and downfield playmaking ability up north to Boston College.

Transfers aside, the Knights lost several beloved members of their roster, including fan favorite bulldozer Isaiah Bowser. The bruising running back was nearly automatic in 4th and short and goal line situations out of the wildcat last year, chipping in a team-high 16 rushing touchdowns. All-AAC offensive linemen Ryan Swoboda and Sam Jackson are also testing their NFL dreams as undrafted free agents, similar to Bowser. On the defensive side of the ball, safety Divaad Wilson looks to leverage his 41 tackles and three interceptions from last season into NFL success. And when factoring in Wilson’s departure with the transfers of Hodges and Brown, not a single UCF defender who recorded an interception in 2022 returns for the 2023 football season — demonstrating the severity of losses in the secondary.

Isaiah Bowser led all UCF running backs in rushing yards at 799 last fall, but his greatest area of impact was by the goal line, where he generated 16 touchdowns.
Photo by Charles Brock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What’s back? Watching a program with as much on-field success as UCF strike out at the 2023 NFL Draft was jarring, but the positive spin is: the Knights aren’t tasked with replacing much irreplaceable NFL talent from last year’s 9-win campaign. When compared to the other Big 12 entrants, UCF boasts a unique advantage Cincinnati and Houston don’t have — a returning head coach and quarterback combination. Gus Malzahn remains on the sidelines after a pair of 9-win seasons and the program trots out an experienced starting quarterback in John Rhys Plumlee.

In his final year of eligibility, Plumlee should provide an instant jolt of electricity in the Big 12 as an established dual threat quarterback. He contributed five 300-yard passing games and five 100-yard rushing performances in a somewhat up-and-down 2022, but with a year of experience in the offense and a healthy hamstring (which hampered his rushing tendencies in his final three contests), there should be expectations for the veteran to be among the Big 12’s best quarterbacks in 2023 in an offense which utilizes heavy RPO concepts.

The skill position players surrounding Plumlee can mostly be defined by the word ‘speed.’ The running back duo of RJ Harvey and Johnny Richardson possess plenty of it which should manufacture a formidable backfield. In the receiving game, Javon Baker (796 receiving yards, 5 TD) and Kobe Hudson (641 receiving yards, 7 TD) return as lethal options, while Xavier Townsend can emerge in that Ryan O’Keefe role as a jet sweep specialist and speedy deep threat. Also, Malzahn offenses favor significant tight usage, so the return of Alec Holler — who made UCF’s catch of the season against South Florida — is definitely a welcome sight. In summary, Plumlee is loaded with options and the Knights can stack up at the skill positions with most Big 12 programs.

Alec Holler ranked fourth on the team in receptions and receiving yards last fall, producing a career-high 115-yard performance at FAU in Week 3.
Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The offensive line is easily the most transient position group on offense with only two starters — left tackle Tylan Grable and All-AAC right guard Lokahi Pauole — back in the trenches. But possessing depth is of utmost importance in the Big 12, and UCF has more than capable reserves on the line including Edward Collins who operated as a full-time starter during the 2020 campaign. UCF was below average in this facet of the game, yielding 2.6 sacks per game last year so amplifying this protection will be the most influential factor to offensive success in its new conference.

UCF should splash into Big 12 play with one of the more impressive defensive lines in the conference. Tre’Mon Morris-Brash was an absolute nuisance for opposing offensive lines in 2022 with 13 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks, and surrounding him with experienced backfield invaders like Josh Celiscar, Ricky Barber, and Lee Hunter should give the Knights advantages over some Big 12 front fives. Working behind the defensive line is First Team All-AAC linebacker Jason Johnson, who totaled a breathtaking 126 tackles in his first FBS season. The secondary features a handful of turnover, but cornerback Corey Thornton and safeties Quadric Bullard and Jarvis Ware were all common rotation pieces in 2022 and combined for 118 tackles and 14 pass breakups.

Lastly, special teams takes on a significant role in close games. The Knights replaced incumbent starters at kicker and punter last season, and both executive decisions paid dividends. Colton Boomer instantly transformed the kicking game in Orlando, sinking 14 of 15 field goal attempts — and his only miss was from 64 yards. Meanwhile, Mitch McCarthy attained a punting average of 43.4 and booted a 50+ yarder in six of his 12 appearances.

What’s new? The Knights have worked the portal wondrously since the arrival of Gus Malzahn, and the program’s primary strength has been collecting SEC talent. Former top 10 offensive tackle recruit Amari Kight should be a day one starter after transferring from Alabama. Chauncey Magwood (Florida) and Trent Whittemore (Kentucky) are other SEC names expected to join the receiver rotation in Orlando. Several transfers from other conferences could provide immediate impact as well. Former Fresno State lineman Bula Schmidt will provide instant starting ability from the center position after garnering Second Team All-Mountain West honors in 2022, while ex-Kent State tackle Marcellus Marshall will provide exterior support after receiving a First Team All-MAC selection last fall.

Bula Schmidt started all 14 games at center for Fresno State in 2022 and received a Second Team All-Mountain West selection.
Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The secondary certainly thinned out this offseason, but UCF restocked through the portal with former East Carolina starter Jireh Wilson, who coincidentally dominated the Knights last October with an interception and fumble recovery, as well as star community college transfer Ja’Maric Morris. The Knights also posted their first-ever Top 50 recruiting class in 2023, with the upgrade to the Big 12 likely playing a key factor. Notable commits from the class include a trio of 4-stars which could see playing time on defense — defensive tackle John Walker, linebacker Andrew Harris, and defensive end Isaiah Nixon.

Malzahn has replenished both coordinator positions after the departures of Lindsey and Williams. UAB offensive coordinator Darrin Hinshaw, renowned for dominant run-heavy attacks mixed in with highly vertical passing in Birmingham, will join the staff as the new OC. Meanwhile, the DC is an internal hire, as defensive backs coach Addison Williams was promoted to Travis Williams’ former gig in December.

Expectations verdict: If there’s one former AAC team that should expect to attain bowl eligibility as an inaugural Big 12 member, it’s UCF. At times, it felt like the Knights underachieved last year in their 9-5 campaign, but the offense returns loads of veteran talent and Gus Malzahn continues to work the transfer portal with expertise. John Rhys Plumlee has shown peaks and valleys as the Knights’ starter, but the quarterback comes with an incredibly high ceiling, especially when he thrives in the run game. The skill position players are comparable to those of other Big 12 programs, so the potential for an upper echelon offense is there. Defense presents greater concerns, as the Knights struggled on that side of the ball to conclude 2022 and lost several key contributors to the transfer portal. However, UCF is granted a favorable non-conference schedule, but unlike Houston and Cincinnati, the Knights must take the road for five of their nine Big 12 contests. But avoiding TCU and Texas in conference play — two of the conference’s top three teams from a year ago — could serve as a nice assist to the Knights’ record. For year one in the Big 12, 6-6 and 7-5 seem like reasonable finishes heading into bowl season, a feat which UCF has qualified for in seven straight seasons.