ORLANDO — This was supposed to be a season of transition for UCF.
With 19 starters and 21 seniors back on a squad that finished a disappointing 5-7 in 2011, the Knights were hoping to mark their final season in Conference USA in 2012 with a championship before jumping to the Big East in 2013.
But after being hit with a yearlong postseason ban as part of penalties handed down by the NCAA for recruiting violations, it's still uncertain whether that coronation will be possible as they await the outcome of an appeal.
Still, coach George O'Leary isn't letting the unknown distract him from preparing a team that could be the best he's seen entering his ninth season in Orlando.
"It's an unusual situation to have the administration involved, and it's probably unique with the NCAA," O'Leary said. "Hopefully the appeal goes through and we win that because I don't think kids should be punished for what happened. They really had nothing to do with it.
"And I'm always going to fight for our football team and our players who deserve a reward if they have a good season."
O'Leary said this year's senior class reminds him of the 2010 group that won both a Conference USA championship and the Liberty Bowl.
The biggest on the field change for the Knights will be at quarterback, where redshirt sophomore Blake Bortles takes over for junior Jeff Godfrey, who converted to receiver.
O'Leary feels confident in his choice of Bortles, who impressed coaches last season in relief appearances for Godfrey.
"I think he's still a sophomore. But obviously he has the tools that we're looking for to lead the football team," O'Leary said. "And I think he's fortunate to have some really good skill kids around him from running backs to receivers that it's not all on his shoulders. Which is what I think you want in a quarterback."
Bortles said he's been focused on learning his expectations and fine tuning his responsibilities.
"Going through spring as the one was definitely a big help to get in there and get the reps and earn the guys' trust on the field," said Bortles who threw for 958 yards and a team-high six touchdowns in 10 appearances.
The offensive line is probably the most touted group in school history, led by senior center Jordan Rae, a candidate for the Rimington Trophy, and all-conference preseason selection Theo Goins.
The receiving corps is loaded with senior Quincy McDuffie (team-high 43 receptions in 2011) joined by productive youngsters in Rannell Hall and J.J. Worton, who was reinstated after an offseason arrest.
Godfrey said he welcomes whatever role the coaching staff has for him, including some "Wild Knight" formations that may have him at quarterback.
Senior running back Latavius Murray was the MVP of the 2010 bowl victory and also the team MVP last season.
Murray is again expected to be the go-to tailback after leading the group with eight rushing touchdowns in 2011.
The defense last year was stunted by some injuries, including losing defensive back A.J. Bouye to an anterior cruciate ligament tear in the eighth game.
Bouye is back, joining all-conference preseason first-teamer and senior defensive back Kemal Ishmael (team high 81 tackles in 2011). Others to watch include junior defensive lineman Victor Gray, also a preseason C-USA first-team selection.
"Last year I did feel like we left games on the field," Gray said. "But it's something that we're not really putting emphasis on this year," Gray said. "Our team goal is 'Finish.' And that's what we're going to do this year."
Brynn Harvey, Sr., RB (Largo); Christopher Nahat, So., WR (Sickles/Sacred Heart); Phil Smith, Sr., OL (Jesuit/Georgia Tech); Brendin Straubel, Fr., DB (Jefferson); Michael Wiszowaty, Fr., OL (Countryside)
An MVP season
Latavius Murray's team MVP 2011 stats, and his previous two seasons.
Latavius Murray stats