By KYLE HIGHTOWER
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — One byproduct of UCF’s national star rising over the past five seasons is that expectations have gone up along with it.
For the first time in several years the Knights will open a season unsure of just how far they can go.
Coach George O’Leary said there are always unknowns with any team entering a season. But he said likes how this group has come together heading into Thursday night’s opener against FIU.
"There’s only so many sunrises and sunsets. You’d like to have more practice time with them," O’Leary said. "We’ll find out Thursday. I’m anxious to see how they perform when the coaches aren’t out there on the field."
History favors the Knights.
UCF enters the matchup with the Panthers having won five straight games against in-state opponents. The Knights have also won seven consecutive home openers. UCF also holds a 2-1 series edge, having won the past two.
UCF’s talent carried them to back-to-back American Athletic Conference titles in 2013 and 2014. This year’s team is down 14 starters from a year ago, and won’t have much downtime this season to work out wrinkles thanks to a schedule that won’t offer a bye until Week 11.
Defensive lineman Thomas Niles said that’s why it will be imperative for the Knights to play well at home.
"You gotta protect your backyard," Niles said.
The Panthers were just 1-11 in coach Ron Turner’s first season in 2013 and 4-8 last season. But Turner said his optimism is high heading into Year 3.
"I think these guys believe they can win now. Before we were kind of hoping we could win," Turner said this week. "I sense more maturity, more focus and little more seriousness from this team. … I think our work now is more for a purpose."
Some things to watch Thursday night:
UCF’S YOUNG RECEIVERS: With the loss of their top four receivers from 2014, O’Leary said it "remains to be seen" who could have a breakout season this year. He said he’s keeping an eye on 2-3 that have had some "ups and downs." But he said he likes the overall athleticism of the group. Along with sophomore Jordan Akins, O’Leary said freshman Tristan Payton could be one to watch.
GRANT RETURNS TO CENTER: Graduate offensive lineman Joey Grant is back for his fifth season and will return to the center position. Grant started only six games at center in 2014 while dealing with a nagging shoulder issue. But after undergoing his third surgery on it in December, he will anchor what the Knights are hoping will be one of its most consistent groups.
RETURNING QUARTERBACKS: The Panthers return All-Conference USA freshman team selection Alex McGough, who threw for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Junior Justin Holman is back for his second full season as the Knights starter. He is coming off a year that saw him throw for 2,952 yards and 23 touchdowns.
TOUGH TIGHT END: Arguably FIU’s top threat on offense, junior TE Jonnu Smith led the nation among tight ends in receiving yards (710), receptions (61) and touchdowns (8). The Florida native enters Thursday having caught at least one pass in 24 straight games.
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