In October of 2013, when the Michigan football team scheduled a game against Central Florida for this weekend, it looked like it would be a tough non-conference test.
Then quarterbacked by future No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles, the Knights rolled to a 12-1 season, an American Athletic Conference championship and a victory against Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. After they lost Bortles, they still managed to win nine games in 2014.
But last year, the wheels fell off the proverbial wagon as coach George O’Leary retired midseason and UCF finished 0-12.
Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost arrived to take over the program, and though early results are promising — a 38-0 win against South Carolina State last week snapped the skid — the Knights are still in the middle of a rebuild. Here’s how they match up with the Wolverines for Saturday’s noon kickoff at Michigan Stadium:
Michigan rush offense vs. UCF rush defense
The Wolverines ran the ball at will last weekend against Hawaii, racking up 306 yards at a rate of 7.8 per carry. They can fire a series of running backs at UCF, including senior De’Veon Smith, freshman Chris Evans, redshirt junior Ty Isaac and sophomore Karan Higdon.
Smith injured his ribs on his fifth carry of the game Saturday and only touched the ball once more after the three-minute mark of the first quarter. But coach Jim Harbaugh expects Smith to be good to go Saturday. Evans stepped in and led the team in rushing with 112 yards on eight carries with two touchdowns. Isaac chipped in 52 yards on nine carries. On the outside, fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson and freshman wide receiver Eddie McDoom add speed.
Michigan started sophomore Grant Newsome at left tackle after a long battle through camp and was only missing fifth-year senior left guard Ben Braden, who sat out as a precaution but also should return Saturday. If he does, the Wolverines will be back to full strength and have a sizable advantage against the Knights’ 3-4 front.
UCF returns most of its team from last year but does lose three starters and one reserve from the defensive line. Nose guard Jamiyus Pittman is the biggest threat up front, with seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last year. The Knights bring back all of their linebackers except, notably, leading tackler Domenic Spencer (104 stops, 9.5 for loss). They limited South Carolina State to 85 rushing yards last week, but they’ll be overmatched at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan pass offense vs. UCF pass defense
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight recovered from an early interception to turn in an impressive first showing, finishing 10-for-13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns. The interception notwithstanding, Speight showed why he won the starting job, with poise in the pocket and the ability to roll out. He didn’t attempt many long throws downfield, but passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch admitted that, in a 63-3 blowout, the Wolverines didn’t see much benefit in doing so.
Speight also appears to have a deep cast of receivers at his disposal, perhaps even deeper than last year. They include wide receivers, tight ends, running backs and fullbacks, and all options are available Saturday.
Redshirt juniors John O’Korn and Shane Morris entered in the second half and combined to go 7-for-7 for 61 yards. They should see action again Saturday.
UCF’s secondary, meanwhile, continues to rebuild after losing all four starters to the NFL heading into last season. Though the Knights suffered from those departures in 2015, they appear improved. Still, they haven’t faced an opponent of Michigan’s caliber in a while.
Cornerback Shaquill Griffin is one player to watch — he had two of UCF’s four interceptions last year and its only one last week. A few more Saturday could be the only way the Wolverines end up in trouble.
UCF rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Knights have adopted Frost’s up-tempo spread attack from Oregon, where he enjoyed success with it. They ran 91 plays in 32:22 against South Carolina State, or one every 21.3 seconds. Michigan had trouble with a similar tempo last season at Indiana, but UCF’s offense is still a work in progress.
The Knights rushed 55 times in their season opener but struggled to pile up yardage, managing just 3.6 yards per carry. Their leading rusher was true freshman Jawon Hamilton with 53 yards, followed by Taj McGowan with 48 and quarterback Justin Holman with 40. On the line, UCF shuffled personnel often last year, trying eight different combinations of starters. That’s not typically a recipe for success against Michigan’s front seven.
The Wolverines ambushed Hawaii with 10 tackles for loss Saturday, and they could record more this week, depending on who plays. The only question is depth. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst is still recovering from an injury, and senior end Taco Charlton and redshirt sophomore tackle Bryan Mone are unlikely to play after they suffered injuries last week.
Even if none of them play, Michigan could still trot out a starting group of Chris Wormley, Rashan Gary, Ryan Glasgow and Matt Godin. Behind them, the all-new starting linebacker corps of Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray and Jabrill Peppers also gave Hawaii problems last week. The only potential issue for the Wolverines is fatigue against a no-huddle offense, but if they capitalize on their advantages, they might not be on the field long enough for it to matter.
UCF pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Holman struggled along with the team last year, throwing 14 interceptions against just seven touchdowns. He’s back and healthy this year, though, and seems to have picked up Frost’s new offense. He completed 14 of 28 passes against South Carolina State for 193 yards and two touchdowns, though the 50-percent completion rate doesn’t bode well for his chances against Michigan’s defense Saturday.
Holman’s top target is wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, who totaled 724 yards last year and added 65 last week. If Michigan senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis returns this week, he should draw Smith.
Lewis would also bolster a ball-hawking secondary that already started four seniors without him last week. Channing Stribling and Delano Hill each returned interceptions for touchdowns to provide the highlights for the season opener, but the Wolverines were dominant for most of the afternoon.
Hawaii’s two quarterbacks totaled just 151 yards passing. Frost’s offense may try to give itself a chance with some big plays, but Michigan has been stout against those opportunities.
Michigan fifth-year senior Kenny Allen performed all three kicking duties in the season opener — sort of.
Allen was the starting field-goal kicker and kickoff specialist, but for the fourth time in program history, Michigan did not punt. If one such situation arises Saturday, Allen will handle that, too. He didn’t have to attempt any field goals last weekend, only converting five extra points. So we haven’t seen him do much, but his track record from last year is positive.
The Wolverines also didn’t have many chances in the return game, but Peppers is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Expect UCF to kick away from him whenever possible, as Hawaii did.
The Knights were strong on special teams against South Carolina State. Matthew Wright converted field goals of 46, 34, 45 and 37 yards. Caleb Houston averaged 44.7 yards on three punts. Chris Johnson had a couple of good punt returns, and Tristan Payton added a 47-yard kick return. We’ll see how many of those opportunities are available Saturday.
UCF’s first win since 2014 had to be a motivating factor, and the Knights should be fired up to test themselves against a top-five team. But many of their players have never played anywhere that’s even close to matching Michigan Stadium’s size, and if they need time to adjust, the game could get out of hand early.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, should brush off another lesser opponent, but if the past is any indication, they won’t be uninspired. The defensive players, especially, have spoken about finishing the job this week and getting the shutout that eluded them last week. Though Frost may have some tricks in mind to put points on the board, Michigan should deliver another strong performance at home.
Prediction: Michigan 55, UCF 7