July 31, 2011
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By John Denton
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UCFAthletics.com) - Back in Memphis and exactly eight months removed from its greatest football moment in school history, UCF was the overwhelming pick of Conference USA's coaches and players to win another league title and return to West Tennessee as the representative in the Liberty Bowl.
UCF dominated much of the talk Sunday at Conference USA's media day with plenty of the buzz surrounding standout quarterback Jeff Godfrey and the Knights' chances of being something of a ``BCS-buster'' this season like Boise State and TCU. C-USA doesn't conduct an official poll as to its predicted winners, but UCF was on the minds of most to repeat as conference champs because of the return of Godfrey and another tough, stingy defense.
``They play great defense year-in and year-out - unlike anybody in this conference, really - and I'm just thankful that Bruce Miller is gone because it seemed like he was there forever,'' Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. ``Our guys know that the UCF game is one you have to win and they are the team you have to beat to win our conference.''
Hopes are once again high with UCF coming off its finest season ever. The Knights were 11-3 in 2010, winning the C-USA title and also beating Georgia in the Liberty Bowl for the school's first bowl victory. The Knights, who return several starters or key playmakers on both sides of the ball, finished ranked No. 20 and 21 in the two national polls and could be ranked in the preseason poll for the first time in program history.
The Knights open fall camp on Thursday with their first full practice. UCF kicks off the regular season Sept. 3 at Bright House Networks Stadium against Charleston Southern. UCF also faces Boston College, BYU and Florida International, giving the program a shot at gaining even more national acclaim before beginning conference play in October.
``Beating a school like Georgia in the Liberty Bowl was a really big win for us and it had a great carryover in the offseason for our program,'' UCF head coach George O'Leary said. ``But like I've told our kids, `Last year is over.' If we don't go out this season and build off that (Liberty Bowl win) it will take some of the shine off of it for us. I don't like to look to the past because it's a new year with a new set of challenges.''
UCF senior defensive end Darius Nall, one of the players hoping to fill the void left by the graduation of Miller, said the desire to repeat as C-USA champions and possibly make a push to get into contention for a BCS bowl game has pushed his squad throughout offseason workouts.
``Last year showed that we can beat anybody in the country and in the offseason we've prepared ourselves to come with that same intensity and focus every game,'' Nall said. ``Getting up to that BCS level, that's a possibility for us. Every day we talk and think about doing something special like that, but we know we have to keep our focus on Conference USA. We'll take it game by game, but we know we could have that chance to do something big if we take care of our business.''
Nall, a second-team all-conference pick last season, enters the season with 13.5 career sacks and said UCF's defense could be even better this season than it was last year. That should come as unpleasant news to Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis, who considers UCF as Southern Miss' top competition to win the East Division. He fully expects the Nov. 12 showdown in Hattiesburg, Miss., to decide which team represents the East Division in the C-USA title game.
``It's always a really good game with UCF and we know they are the team to beat,'' said Davis, who is on pace to break many of Brett Favre's records at Southern Miss this season. ``Sunday mornings after (playing) UCF are always the worst because they really hit. Their defense is so good and they play hard - and when you do that that's the team that's usually going to win. This year, they are coming to `The Rock,' which is way better for us because playing at UCF is really tough. We've gotten then for three years and they've been really tough games, so we know they'll be coming for us this year. We'll be ready and we know that they will, too.''
Houston is the pick by many to win the West Division of Conference USA after the NCAA approved a sixth year of eligibility for prolific quarterback Case Keenum, who missed most of last season because of a torn ligament in his knee. UCF defeated Houston each of the past two seasons - once with Keenum playing and once with him out injured. UCF and Houston don't play in the regular season, but a showdown could ultimately materialize in the conference title game in December.
``UCF is definitely the top team in Conference USA right now and it's such a tough place to play because of the team, the fans, the atmosphere and how loud it is when they are stomping there,'' said Keenum, one of only two quarterbacks in NCAA history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons. ``UCF just has a really talented defense and some really talented players have gone through there. It's a big game anytime you play them and it's a game anyone would circle on their calendar.''
SMU was the last C-USA team to play the Knights last season, a game UCF won 17-7 in the C-USA title game. The Knights play SMU in Dallas on Oct. 15 in one of the marquee early-season games in conference play. Already, SMU coach June Jones is fretting over trying to figure out UCF's defense and a way to slow down Godfrey, who was the nation's most efficient freshman quarterback last season.
``The thing that I still have fresh in my mind about UCF is that quarterback,'' Jones said while playfully shaking his head. ``If you can find a way to neutralize that kid you might have a chance to beat them. But with their defense, they've done such a good job with their schemes. They're just so solid and a really good football team. Hopefully, we can prove that we belong with them when we play.''
East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis, who grew up in Lakeland, has admired the UCF program for years and said the Nov. 19 showdown against the Knights is the conference game he is most looking forward to. He hopes that the game in Greenville, N.C., will have championship implications.
``(UCF) is pretty much our biggest rivalry now, especially after last year with everybody talking about whoever won that game would win the conference,'' said Davis, C-USA's Newcomer of the Year last season. ``They got the better end of it against us last year and I congratulate them on winning the conference. But we'll see what happens this season when we play them.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.