UCF football is now firmly in the Gus Malzahn era and, now that he’s starting to leave his imprint on the Knights, they should see a successful 2022 season. 

The first year for Gus Malzahn at the helm of the UCF football program may have been somewhat underwhelming for the standards of Knights fans but the former Auburn head coach dealt with a ton of adversity and was able to still piece together a terrific season.

Now they come into the 2022 season with a new quarterback and new hope that Malzahn is ready to get the Knights back to the top of the AAC. But can they get to those heights?

Coming in at No. 47 on FanSided’s Preseason Top 50 Rankings, the UCF Knights.

 

UCF football 2021 season in review

In 2020, the Knights finished the year with a 6-4 record and a loss in the Boca Raton Bowl to the BYU Cougars. Head coach Josh Heupel left the program after the season to become the new sideline boss for the Tennessee Volunteers. The Knights looked towards the SEC and decided to hire former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn to replace him.

The Knights started off their season in a hectic fashion, pulling off a 36-31 win over Boise State in the opener. Through the first six games, UCF sat with a 3-3 record. But in the second half, they were able to bounce back by taking five of their final six games to finish the regular season with an 8-4 record.

UCF was named a participant in the Gasparilla Bowl, where they matched up against a Florida Gators team that was free-falling and fired Dan Mullen midway through the season. The Knights were able to pull out the 29-17 win. Wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe was named MVP after recording seven receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown.

Previewing UCF Knights offense for 2022 season

  • Returning starters (6/7): RB Isaiah Bowser, RB Johnny Richardson, WR Ryan O’Keefe, WR Amari Johnson, OL Matthew Lee, OL Lokahi Pauole, OL Samuel Jackson
  • Newcomers: QB John Rhys Plumlee (Ole Miss), WR Kobe Hudson (Auburn), LT Tylan Grable (Jacksonville State), OL Ryan Swoboda (Virginia), TE Kemore Gamble (Florida)
  • Impact player: John Rhys Plumlee

For the Knights offense, there will be a battle for the starting quarterback position. The team has Mikey Keene returning after taking over for an injured Dillon Gabriel in the 2021 campaign. But, he will have some competition in the form of John Rhys Plumlee, who transferred over from Ole Miss. Yet, Plumlee has plenty of rust with just eight pass attempts over the past two seasons. However, his dual-threat ability could be exactly what Malzahn wants in the offense.

The running back room is intact, with Isaiah Bowser and Johnny Richardson returning for this season, who both logged over 700 yards rushing last season.

As for the passing attack, wide receivers Ryan O’Keefe and Amari Johnson are all returning. But joining the Knight’s wide receiver depth chart is Kobe Johnson, a transfer from Auburn. The team does have a new tight end in Kemore Gamble, who transferred over from the Florida Gators program.

The offensive line has two new offensive linemen in former Jacksonville State tackle Tylan Grable and Virginia guard Ryan Swoboda.

Previewing UCF Knights defense for 2022 season

  • Returning starters (8): CB Davonte Brown, NB Justin Hodges, DT Ricky Barber, DT Keenan Hester, DE Josh Celiscar, LB Tre’Mon Morris-Brash, S Quadric Bullard, S Divaad Wilson
  • Newcomers: LB Branden Jennings (Kansas State), LB Jason Johnson (Eastern Illinois), DE K.D. McDaniel (Kentucky), DL Lee Hunter (Auburn)
  • Impact player: Davonte Brown

The defense remains relatively intact, with some departures. Tatum Bethune, their leading tackler from last season, will not be back, as he transferred to Florida State. Sacks leader Markaviest Bryant made the jump to the NFL, signing with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent.

Their linebacker corps has seen the most change, with the team having six transfers on the roster, including Branden Jennings from Kansas State and Jason Johnson from Eastern Illinois.

UCF’s leading pass defenders will return, including Davonte Brown and Justin Hodges. Just last year, the Knights’ pass defense allowed just 210.1 air yards per game, ranked 35th in the entire nation.

UCF football players awards watch for 2022 season

Isaiah Bowser, Heisman

Normally, the easiest choice to make for the Heisman watch is to put in the starting quarterback. There is one issue — it is unknown who will win the starting job between Keene and Plumlee. Instead, we look at another position that is likely to win a Heisman, and that is running back.

The top running back on the roster is Isaiah Bowser. He transferred over last season from Northwestern, and shined in his eight games for the Knights. He did miss time due to injuries.

In eight games, Bowser ran for 703 yards and 9 touchdowns on 159 carries. Bowser returned in time for the Gasparilla Bowl, where he rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries. That was his first game since Nov. 6 that year.

If Bowser can stay healthy, he could have the chance to make some noise as the team’s Heisman candidate.

Ryan O’Keefe, Biletnikoff Award

O’Keefe should be the favorite in the wide receivers room to earn Biletnikoff honors for best receiver in the nation. Last season, he caught 84 passes for 812 yards and seven touchdowns. He ended the season on a high note by winning the Gasparilla Bowl MVP award.

This could be the most likely honor for a UCF player this season.

Isaiah Bowser, Doak Walker Award

We may be cheating on this one, but Bowser is a legitimate candidate for the Doak Walker award for the best running back in the nation. In fact, he was placed on the Doak Walker award’s pre-season watch list, alongside Johnny Richardson Jr.

Bowser will likely be the starter for the majority of the season, and could put him in contention for this award. However, do not count out Richardson on winning the award as well.

UCF football biggest game on 2022 Schedule

When looking at the Knight’s schedule, one opponent stands out among the rest. That is, of course, the Cincinnati Bearcats. Just last year, Cincinnati shocked the world by going undefeated in the regular season, and a perfect 8-0 in the American Athletic Conference. With their season, they were able to clinch the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff, earning them a shot against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl. They ultimately lost 27-6.

These two teams met last year, and it was not even close, as the Knights lost 56-21.

The Knights have the chance to get some revenge against their conference rivals and earn their first win over them since 2018.

UCF football best-case scenario

Perhaps the best case scenario for the upcoming season is that the Knights stay healthy for the majority of the season. If so, they could stand to finish second place in the AAC. Even with the departures on Cincinnati, they are still hard to pick against in the conference.

So, best case scenario is that they finish in second and make it into a bowl game.

UCF football worst-case scenario

The worst-case scenario is finishing below .500 and not even being able to qualify for a bowl game. That could happen if the quarterback play is less than ideal or if the injuries really pile up on both sides of the ball.

If things are to go wrong, many will look towards Malzahn. That is exactly what happened in his final years with the Auburn Tigers program before the school ultimately decided to move on from him. It is unlikely that UCF would move on from him in just his second season, especially when they finished with a winning record last year.

UCF football 2022 season prediction

The Knights look to be a relatively stout team heading into the 2022 season, but the uncertainty at quarterback could hurt the team from making a huge leap from last year. Considering that Cincinnati will be Cincinnati and Houston is on the rise, the Knights will miss out on the AAC Championship Game. But, they will have a good enough record to comfortably make it to a bowl game.

Record: 9-3

UCF football 2022 bowl game prediction

Since UCF will have a winning record but will not make it to the AAC Championship Game, what bowl game do they participate in? Since they do not have any hard affiliations, it is hard to predict which one they will go to.

The Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl seems like a safe pick. College Football News predicts the Knights will reach that game as well, so we’ll go with that.

Up Next: No. 46: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

Other articles in this series

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