It’s that time of year when pundits are wrestling with the question of how good each and every team in college football will be in 2018. For Nebraska fans worried about their own team, it's not just a question of "how good" the Huskers can be in 2018 but also what's fair to expect?
With that in mind, I'm going to take a close look back at UCF's 2016 season, the first under Scott Frost, and focus on the losses. Not all losses are created equal, so let's try to find out what they were telling us about the Knights' progress in Year 1 and what that might mean for Nebraska in 2018.
First up, UCF's 51-14 loss at Michigan on Sept. 10, 2016.
"We came in here and out-hit those guys today," Scott Frost said following his first loss as head coach. "Standing on the sideline, there's no doubt which team was hitting harder. Our guys came in hungry. It's rare that you can come into Michigan and rush for (nearly) 300 yards on them, while they had to run a fly sweep in the fourth quarter to get to 100."
That calm-but-confident tone would become better known to football fans over the 24 games following this one that Frost would coach at UCF. Bet let Game 2 stand as a reminder that it was always there.
There's no doubt Frost believed what he was saying, but you can see the secondary motivation working here, too. His team had just lost by 37 points and he seemed determined that his team would take something from the game. The preferred takeaway: You just went into a top-five team's house (the big one) and "outhit" them in Week 2.
Savvy move, that.
How Good Was Michigan?
Real good. The 2016 team is Jim Harbaugh's best at Michigan to this point. The Wolverines started at No. 7 in the AP poll and were up to No. 5 when UCF came to town. Vegas made the Wolverines a 36-point favorite. After beating the Knights, Michigan took care of a Colorado team that would finish 11th in the AP poll, Penn State (5th) and Wisconsin (8th) in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
In retrospect, this looks even more like a national-title-caliber team than it did at the beginning of the 2016 season. The defense put up national-championship-type numbers (14.1 ppg). The three losses in the 10-3 season came by a total of five points to Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State (bowl). Michigan set a program record with 11 players drafted the following April. Man, the Wolverines were loaded on defense.
What's the Box Score Say?
The score is the only thing that matters, but often a close look at the box score gives you a better idea of how well a team did or did not play. Unfortunately for Frost and the Knights, special teams problems didn't give UCF much of a chance to hang around. Thanks to two blocked punts and a field goal attempt, Michigan's average starting field position in the first quarter was the UCF 45. The Wolverines first three touchdown drives covered a total of 144 yards. UCF trailed 21-0 at the end of the first quarter.
That big early lead––the Wolverines scored on their first three possessions of the second quarter, too––mean a lot of this game fell into what some would consider "garbage time." Do with that what you will. The rushing numbers for UCF, in my opinion, remain impressive. The Knights averaged 6.81 yards per rush when you remove sacks. This against one of the nation's best rush defenses, a defense that would allow 4.24 per carry for the season. The 275 yards UCF is officially given credit for remains the most any team has put up against Michigan the last two years.
The passing game was a struggle, however. Adding the sacks in here, UCF was 6-of-25 for 38 yards with starer Justin Holman going 3-of-13 for 5 yards (again, counting sacks as pass attempts and subtracting the yardage lost). All of which makes the rush numbers more impressive considering they were compiled with virtually zero passing threat.
In addition to the special teams gaffes, UCF was also a little unlucky in the turnover department, losing two-of-three fumbles while Michigan fumbled twice but recovered both. Throw in a huge field-position edge for the Wolverines and it's almost surprising the final margin wasn't greater.
So what does it mean that the actual margin, 37 points, ended up almost right on the line (Michigan -36)? Given all the Knights did to hurt themselves in this game, I'd take it as an indication that UCF actually played pretty well most of the time, something the final score definitely doesn't indicate.
Given that this was Game 2 against what would prove to be a legitimately good opponent on the road in Year 1, this is the perfect sort of loss early in a new coach's tenure (if you've got to have one). If you play it right, there's a lot to be gained from doing just what UCF did here.
UCF running back Adrian Killins Jr. had his second collegiate carry in this game. It went like this. (Apologies for the camera work, but I think the commentary makes up for it.)
Next Up: UCF comes up short against Maryland.