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.
Here's a look back at UCF's double-overtime loss to Maryland in Week 3.
McKenzie Milton made the first start of his college career with a pair of Nike swooshes under his eyes. They were on his eye black –– or eye white in the case –– which made for an interesting look. The look on the field was much more conventional. At least for Milton (which remains unique).
The true freshman's first start is a good display of the still-stupefying ability to make plays that has since become commonplace. He runs over here and over there, looking at something that maybe only he is capable of seeing. You're never quite sure how it's all going to work out, but it works out positively most of the time. That part of his game was there from the start, even if it wasn't fully formed yet.
Milton went 21-for-39 (including sacks) through the air for 243 yards, two touchdowns and one interception that wasn't his fault. His passer rating in this game (131.76) was slightly better than Nebraska's team rating in 2017 (to pick the low-hanging fruit). He also scored on the ground while compiling one of the stranger stat lines you'll see: 19 carries for 7 yards.
Because the NCAA's method of scorekeeping doesn't make sense, you can immediately remove the sacks and add those yards back in. That puts Milton at 16 carries for 24 yards. Still strange. You can give him back 11 more yards (and one fewer carry) on a pass that slipped out of his hand in the second overtime, was ruled a fumble, reviewed and upheld, a play that would end up being the last one on offense for UCF. If you want a starting point for how Milton actually ran in that game, it's more of the 2 yards per carry than the 0.37 officially recorded. Still a rough start on that front. But not as bad as the fumbles. Milton had six on the day, losing three.
And if you're looking for potential takeaways from this game as they might relate to Nebraska's new staff, one might be this: They stuck with Milton, through good and bad, in his first start. No other quarterback attempted a pass. Minus the East Carolina game Milton missed a few weeks later, he took the bulk of the snaps the rest of the way for the Knights at quarterback, too. Once Scott Frost and Mario Verduzco made the decision to turn it over to the true freshman, they also made the decision to stick with him through that growth phase.
"I got about what I thought from McKenzie, he was calm, cool and a heck of a lot of fun to watch and made a lot of great plays," Frost said after the Maryland game. "There were some first game mistakes."
How Good Was Maryland?
Pretty good. This was D.J. Durkin's third game as the Terps' head coach and Maryland had two comfortable wins over poor teams (Howard, FIU) coming in. Vegas made the Terrapins a 10.5-point favorite, which is pretty large for a road game in a Group of 5 environment that's always a little bit louder and hungrier on the rare occasion a Power 5 team deigns to visit. (It would end up being the second largest UCF crowd of the season.)
While Maryland would only finish 6-7, it was a dangerous team offensively. The Terps' 6.05 yards per rush (adjusted for sacks, always) led the Big Ten that season and Maryland ranked third in explosive-plays percentage (6.97). Defense, Durkin's specialty, was a work in progress as Maryland would finish 12th in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed and explosive-plays percentage.
What's the Box Score Say
As you might expect from a game that goes to double overtime, this was more or less a coin flip. UCF's defense, like most others that season, struggled to keep a lid on Maryland's run game. (Former OC Walt Bell is a rising star, hence the reason he has the same position at Florida State now at the age of 33.) Five Terps, including quarterbacks, had runs of 15-plus yards in the game. Maryland rushed for four touchdowns, 6.24 yards per carry and had a 53-percent success rate on run plays.
The Knights defense survived by limiting Maryland to an 18-percent success rate on passes while sacking quarterback Perry Hills five times.
Offensively, UCF was equally efficient (based on success rate) with the run and the pass, a pretty remarkable step for a group still getting used to the frenetic pace that produced 91 plays for the second time in three games.
As with the loss to Michigan, UCF was a little unlucky in the turnover department. The Knights broke up seven passes, but intercepted none. Meanwhile Maryland was right on the expected pace, intercepting one of the five passes it got a hand on (20%) and recovering three of six UCF fumbles (50%). Unlike the loss to Michigan, a little bit better fortune here might have flipped this game.
"I told them before the game they were poised and ready to knock off a team very few people thought they could beat," Frost said following the loss. "We had our chances in this one. We had a lot of chances to finish it, to score early and make it a different game. I'm hurting for our kids that we didn't get it done."
Inside linebacker Demetrie Brim had himself a day with 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. UCF also faked a punt from its own 23 on fourth-and-2, snapping it to Brim who carried for 17 yards. Fake punts deep in your own territory are always fun. When they work.
Next Up: UCF drops a tough one to Temple.