Under coach George O'Leary -- who is entering his 10th season at the Orlando-based university, Central Florida became one of the strongest programs in Conference USA. A move to the American Athletic Conference means the Knights might fall down the pecking order -- at least for a while. UCF has had at least one player selected in each of the past eight drafts, including wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Mike Sims-Walker and running back Kevin Smith, but the overall talent level must grow if the Knights want to win titles in their new league.
There are some intriguing prospects this season, but it's not a stretch to think the eight-year streak ends in May. The best prospects are a handful of underclassmen, including quarterback Blake Bortles and tailback Storm Johnson. Those are the guys who have to come through this fall if UCF wants to go to a bowl for the sixth time in nine seasons and the fourth time in five years.
Top senior prospects
DT E.J. Dunston: Dunston (6-foot-2, 309 pounds) was a full-time starter for the first time last season and played well, recording 39 tackles and forcing three fumbles. He's not going to make many sacks or tackles for loss, but he plays to his strengths and is stout at the point of attack. He played well in UCF's loss at Ohio State last season, finishing with six tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He was thrown into the fray as a true freshman and never redshirted.
G Jordan McCray: He and his twin brother, Justin, are UCF's starting guards; Jordan (6-4, 309) is the more talented of the two. Last season was his first as a full-time starter. McCray is a tough, physical blocker who is at his best in straight-ahead, one-on-one battles. His pass protection needs improvement.
QB Blake Bortles: He's a big (6-4, 227), physical guy who showed improvement as a passer last season, throwing for 3,059 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had 10 games with at least two touchdown passes, setting a school record (remember, this is Daunte Culpepper's alma mater). Bortles -- a junior -- has good mobility and isn't afraid to tuck and run ... and he can deliver some punishment when he does run. He has a strong arm, and with continued refinement as a passer this season he could end up high on some draft boards as a senior.
SS Clayton Geathers: A number of Geathers' cousins and uncles have played in the NFL, and this Geathers (6-3, 203) has the potential to one day join them. Geathers -- a junior -- is entering his third season as a starter. He has average speed, but makes up for it with good instincts (he has 186 tackles the past two seasons) and is a big hitter. His coverage skills need improvement, but he does have 11 career pass breakups. He might move to free safety for the Knights this fall, but his best position at the next level would be strong safety.
OT Torrian Wilson: He was a big-time recruit out of powerhouse Miami Northwestern High School in 2010 and surprised more than a few people by signing with UCF. He was a first-time starter at left tackle last fall and was a second-team All-Conference USA selection. He played guard in high school and could play that position at the next level. Wilson looked good on the outside last season, though. He has good footwork and can really mash people in the running game.
TB Storm Johnson: He shared carries with Latavius Murray (a sixth-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft of the Oakland Raiders) last season, but the tailback job should be all his this fall. Johnson (6-1, 217), a junior, began his career at the University of Miami before transferring after his freshman season. He lacks elite speed, but he still is quick enough to turn the corner and strong enough to run between the tackles. Johnson's receiving skills are questionable, and he also must prove he can handle a heavy workload.
DT Demetris Anderson: He is a Florida native who transferred to UCF after his freshman season at Western Michigan. He sat out last season, then had a strong spring and enters summer camp as a projected starter next to Dunston. Anderson (6-3, 303) impressed coaches with his strength and toughness, but can he provide any kind of inside pass rush?
TE Justin Tukes: Tukes (6-4, 248), a junior, has good size and strength -- now he must show he can catch the ball. He had only 10 receptions last season for 107 yards and two scores. Tukes' best attribute is his blocking ability.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 14 at Penn State: The Nittany Lions have two good guards, so Anderson and Dunston have a chance to make their mark. Penn State will be breaking in two new starters at corner so this could be a national coming-out party for Bortles. Will Johnson have any room to run against what should be a tough front seven?
Sept. 28 vs. South Carolina: Wilson will be going against Jadeveon Clowney. There is no better way to gain attention than to play well against a superstar. South Carolina has huge questions at linebacker, which could mean a big day for Johnson.
Oct. 18 at Louisville: This Friday night game will give UCF's stars a chance to shine on a national stage. Louisville is the AAC's most talented team, and Geathers, especially, will be under the gun against a powerful passing attack.