In leading the nation in rushing last season and in leading Central Florida to 10 wins and a Conference USA championship, running back Kevin Smith put the Knights on the national map in a way that perhaps only quarterback Daunte Culpepper had done.
Smith left a year early for the NFL, and the challenge for coach George O'Leary is to show that his Knights can stay on that map.
Can UCF navigate its way through a difficult nonconference schedule and repeat as C-USA champion?
"You can't replace Kevin," O'Leary said. "Whether it's UCF or any school you're at, a running back like that, a consensus All-American, it's very difficult. … Kevin had a lot to do with the success of our season. … The main thing is we've got to continue to win. It's not one year and down again, it's one year and keep climbing. That's what good programs do."
Entering their second season in Bright House Networks Stadium, the Knights have 17 starters back, led by senior safety and return specialist Joe Burnett, who considered going to the NFL.
On offense, the top returning passer is junior Michael Greco, who threw for 303 yards in limited action last season, and he'll be challenged by redshirt freshman Joe Weatherford, a former Land O'Lakes standout and younger brother of FSU quarterback Drew. Four freshmen running backs will be among those trying to offset the loss of Smith, including Largo's Brynn Harvey, who rushed for 2,581 yards as a high school senior.
With Smith gone, the national perception seems to anticipate a major dropoff for UCF. SI.com had the Knights 68th in its power rankings, and the Sporting News didn't include UCF in its preseason top 50. The Knights were picked to win their division again in the C-USA preseason poll, but it remains to be seen whether they can reach beyond that.
Their first chance to make a major splash comes at home Sept. 6, when they get a fourth and final shot at USF, hoping to avenge a 64-12 loss last season. Despite that margin, Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said his team respects the Knights.
"I don't have to warn our players. Our players know," he said. "They know darn well how good they are."
There are games at Boston College and Miami, and winning either would give UCF credibility outside its league, much like an early win at N.C. State and a 35-32 loss to Texas did last season.
"I think you always should play very competitive nonconference games. That's where you get the power ratings from," O'Leary said. "Teams are finding they have to play people to get recognition, even if they're doing well in their own conference."
Much of the offseason attention dealt with the death of freshman receiver Ereck Plancher, who collapsed during a team workout in March. Returning to the football field will bring the focus back on the Knights, whether they're able to stay at the high level of play established last season. If O'Leary can find answers at quarterback and running back, he likes the remainder of his lineup.
"The rest of the positions are pretty much taken already," he said.