Forecast: UCF future still bright

New QB shouldn’t prevent Knights from AAC title challenge.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Baylor vs Central Florida

Pete DiNovo has some big shoes to fill as he steps into the starting role for UCF. (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — The American Athletic Conference is seeing a bit of change this fall following its inaugural football season. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa replace departing Louisville and Rutgers. Cincinnati and Houston remain from a highly competitive title chase that the University of Central Florida ultimately captured.

Eleven teams in all will vie for AAC honors in 2014. So where does that leave the defending champions?

Well, without Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson, a repeat of last year’s 12-1 season, capped off with a spectacular Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor, will be a tall task.

UCF Knights running back William Stanback (28) runs after a catch against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights last season at Bright House Networks Stadium. (Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports)
UCF Knights running back William Stanback (28) runs after a catch against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights last season at Bright House Networks Stadium. (Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports)

But the cupboard certainly isn’t bare at Central Florida. Pete DiNovo will take over at QB and Will Stanback at RB to go along with a plethora of capable receivers and a retooled offensive line that lost three starters to graduation. Add to that a stingy defense that returns the majority of its starters and you have the makings of a competitive season.

Moreover, Cincinnati, a team many believe is the best in a wide open field, does not appear on the Knights’ schedule this season. So the 2014 AAC opener, a Thursday, Oct. 2, date at Houston could be huge and go a long way in deciding the conference champion.

Home games with Tulane (Oct. 18), Temple (Oct. 25), Tulsa (Nov. 14), and SMU (Nov. 22) appear favorable for Knights victories. Road matchups at Connecticut (Nov. 1) and USF (Nov. 28) are also manageable prior to the season-ending Thursday, Dec. 4, encounter at East Carolina, a newcomer to the conference with a powerful offense that some believe could be enough to challenge for a championship.

Six of last year’s eight conference wins were by a touchdown or less, and this season shapes up to be equally competitive. But an eight- or nine-win season is not out of the question and with a little of the same luck they enjoyed last season, even a 10-win campaign is achievable.

Next season the conference will expand to 12 teams with the addition of Navy and will be divided into East and West Divisions. Central Florida will play in the East with Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, South Florida, and Temple. The East will include Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU, Tulane, and Tulsa.

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