USC opponent preview: Plenty of unknowns, but also plenty of reasons to be wary of UCF

The UCF team of head coach George O'Leary (right) gave South Carolina and Steve Spurrier quite a fight when the teams last played in 2013. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

COLUMBIA — George O’Leary has built himself a solid football program in a part of the Sunshine State not exactly known for such things since the days of Daunte Culpepper. In retrospect, South Carolina’s victory in Orlando two years ago looks like one of Steve Spurrier’s biggest road wins at USC, and even without Blake Bortles and Co., the Knights still earned a share of the American Athletic Conference championship last year.

If UCF is going to keep things going, it may need to rely on the arm of quarterback Justin Holman to carry a program which suffered notable losses on both sides of the ball. Holman last season proved himself the heir apparent to Bortles — now calling signals for the Jacksonville Jaguars behind an offensive line which includes Gamecocks great A.J. Cann — by passing for nearly 3,000 yards with a solid TD-to-interception ratio.

There’s every reason to believe Holman can be better this season. He might have to be, given that the Knights lost virtually their entire offense line, all of their experienced wide receivers, and a healthy chunk of a defense which was perhaps the most underrated in the country last season.

So no, there’s no Blake Bortles back behind center. There’s likely no Fiesta Bowl for UCF. But the Knights have a quarterback who’s capable of engineering an upset in a hostile environment, and more importantly the expectations for this program have been raised across the board. O’Leary’s teams have averaged 9.4 wins over each of the last five seasons. Think this game is a breather between two SEC opponents? Think again.

Head coach: Georgia O’Leary (81-60 in 11 seasons at UCF, 133-93 in 18 seasons overall)

Returning starters: 10 (six offense, four defense)

2014 record: 9-4 (7-1 AAC, tied for first)

Scoring offense: 27.6 points scored per game (74th nationally)

Scoring defense: 19.2 points allowed per game (ninth nationally)

Series: South Carolina leads 4-0

Opposing beat writer: Shannon Owens-Green, Orlando Sentinel (@osknights)

Last meeting: South Carolina 28, UCF 25 on Sept. 28, 2013 in Orlando, Fla. The Gamecocks lost Connor Shaw to a shoulder injury, but Mike Davis rallied USC from a 10-0 halftime deficit and South Carolina pinned the lone loss of the season on first-round pick NFL draft Bortles and a Knights team that would finish the year with a victory in the Fiesta Bowl.

1. Early draft entries took a toll. Cornerback Jacoby Glenn, the co-defensive player of the year in the AAC, left after his junior season for the NFL, leaving UCF’s secondary barren of returning starters. The same can be said of the wide receiver group after Breshad Perriman, a 1,000-yard receiver last year, left early.

2. Stanback at full strength? William Stanback proved a potent running back for UCF — when he was heathy. The junior battled ankle injuries throughout last spring and into the season, when he started seven games and rushed for 697 yards and 10 touchdowns. At full strength, he could be an effective complement to Holman in the backfield.

3. Charlie Taaffe has retired. Taaffe, who during his decade at The Citadel coached perhaps the Bulldogs’ best team, had been the Knights’ offensve coordinator, and was key in Bortles’ development at UCF. Brent Key, who had previously worked under Taaffe, takes over the position.

Week before: At Georgia

Next week: At Missouri

On the horizon: Hope the grass is tasty, because the Hat is on his way