ORLANDO, Fla. – Central Florida finally saw its long winning streak end on New Year's Day and will open the 2019 season with a new quarterback under center as it hosts Florida A&M on Thursday night. UCF lost to LSU 40-32 in the Fiesta Bowl after winning 25 games in a row but, despite injuries to quarterbacks McKenzie Milton and Darriel Mack Jr., the 17th-ranked Knights are expecting to be a factor on the national scene once again.
TV: 7:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network. LINE: No Line
"Proud of where we're at as far as trust, communication, work habits inside our program," UCF's second-year coach Josh Heupel told reporters. "All of that is giving us a chance to go out and play really well. We gotta go earn it, gotta go prepare the right way this week to go play our best football on Thursday night." Milton won't play in 2019 after a major knee injury and Mack had offseason ankle surgery to delay the start to his sophomore campaign, so Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush was able to win a three-way battle for the No. 1 quarterback position. "I expect (Wimbush) to play championship-caliber football," Heupel told reporters of the senior, who played 20 games with the Fighting Irish. "He's got great command of what we're doing." FCS member Florida A&M of the MEAC, who won the only previous meeting 19-14 in 1987, struggled defensively while losing three in a row to end 2018 but returns senior quarterback Ryan Stanley (59.9 percent passing) among several productive players on offense.
ABOUT FLORIDA A&M (2018: 6-5)
Stanley, who threw for 2,519 yards to go along with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last year, should have a strong ground game to work with as senior Deshawn Smith (640 yards, four TDs) and junior Bishop Bonnett (533, three) return for the Rattlers. Sophomore receiver Xavier Smith had 52 catches for 727 yards in 2018 and was named to the 2019 Black College Football Player of the Year Award Watch List. "We see the skill and we see the talent on the field, but we need to make (players) understand that talent alone will not get it done," coach Willie Simmons told the team's website. "It will take a disciplined team that executes to the best of their ability."
ABOUT CENTRAL FLORIDA (2018: 12-1)
Heupel told reporters freshman Dillon Gabriel would get some snaps in the opener to give a break to Wimbush, who threw four touchdown passes along with six interceptions while completing 52.9 percent of his passes for the Irish last year after being under 50 percent in 2017. Junior Greg McCrae became the first UCF player to rush for 1,000 yards since 2013 as he accumulated 1,182 with 11 touchdowns (one receiving) and he will be supported by speedy senior Adrian Killins Jr., who has run for 1,830 career yards along with being a receiving and return threat. The Knights hope for improvement on defense and will be led by junior safety Richie Grant (109 tackles, six interceptions in 2018) along with senior linebacker Nate Evans (99 tackles).
1. UCF junior WR Gabriel Davis led the team last season with 53 catches and 815 receiving yards.
2. Senior DB Andrew Hines had three interceptions last year for Florida A&M, which was picked third in the preseason MEAC poll.
3. Killins has scored 26 touchdowns in his career, tied with Jeff Godfrey for sixth in school history and two behind Alex Haynes for fifth.
PREDICTION: Central Florida 45, Florida A&M 14