Team preview: UCF

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(All information as of July 1, 2006)


Stunning. There are few other apt adjectives to describe the football turnaround at UCF.

That the Golden Knights reached a bowl for the first time (in their 10th season of Division I-A play) was reason enough for second-year coach George O'Leary to take a bow. Becoming bowl eligible was arguably the most ambitious goal O'Leary set for a team that came off a 0-11 season and took a 15-game losing streak into the season.

Somehow the Knights even exceeded the expectations of their crusty, white-haired coach.

In their first season in Conference USA, they won their division. Once a I-A punch line, they engineered one of the biggest single-season swings in college history. Eighteen months ago, the Knights were the worst team in the Mid-American Conference and one of the worst in the country. At Christmas time they were dancing the hula at the Hawaii Bowl.

And now, a few months removed from 8-5 and a C-USA East Division crown, UCF strolls into 2006 as a young but veteran outfit with heightened ambitions.

Therein lies the challenge.

"This team hasn't done anything yet," O'Leary said. "Winning eight games, getting to a bowl game, that was last year's team. What we accomplished last year was nice, but that was just the first step.

They have to understand they have to take the next step now."

Pieces are certainly in place to do so. All of the offensive line is back. All of the offensive backfield returns. Two key playmakers -- tailback Kevin Smith and receiver Mike Walker -- are back, though Walker must continue recovering from a torn ACL.

If the Knights can get a bit more stubborn on defense and be nearly as opportunistic as they were in 2005, they'll have a solid shot at returning to the C-USA championship game.