Here are five things to know about the game:
Strong start imperative
Tech will want to start the game well on defense. In the win over Western Carolina and the loss to Ole Miss, the Jackets permitted both teams to score touchdowns on their first two possessions, often with the help of big plays. (Tech did hold Clemson scoreless through the Tigers’ first four possessions.)
“We’ve just got to bring some extra energy and more focus on that first drive,” linebacker Charlie Thomas said.
Ole Miss set the tone against Tech on Saturday by driving 74 yards in only five plays to take a 7-0 lead in less than a minute and a half of game time. Then the Rebels got a stop, blocked the ensuing punt and scored a second touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
“And then from there, we could never get it back on track,” Collins said.
The Knights (2-1) scored touchdowns on the opening drive of two of their first three games. UCF also has allowed touchdowns on its opponents’ first possessions in two of its three games.
Collins and two Tech players gave their assessment of the Knights.
Collins: “They’ve got speed all over the field. It’s one of the top rushing offenses and, really, one of the top offenses in the country.”
UCF averages 273 rushing yards per game, fourth in FBS. The Knights were 28th last season at 196.3 yards per game. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, a transfer from Ole Miss, is the team’s leading rusher, at 101.3 yards per game.
Thomas: “They mix tempos when they get explosive (plays). They run the ball. The main thing we’ve got to do is keep the quarterback in the pocket. He scrambles, so he likes to do a lot of running around.”
The Knights defense has held each of its first three opponents under a 50% completion rate. The secondary is considered exceptional.
Wide receiver Malachi Carter: “They’re not afraid to come up and get in your face and press you up. They’ll tackle. They’re some pretty long guys, so it should be a pretty good matchup.”
Preparing for fast pace
UCF can play at a high tempo, as Ole Miss did to great effect against the Jackets. Because the Rebels sometimes snapped the ball so quickly, Tech defensive players often were not set and did not have their eyes on their keys. That led to them not executing their assignments properly, which opened up big-play opportunities for the Rebels.
“So obviously, UCF will see that on tape,” Collins said. “We’ve got to make the corrections.”
The biggest challenge in facing a fast-paced offense, cornerback Zamari Walton said, is “just getting positioned, being in your alignment and making sure you get your eyes to the sideline (for the play call). It’s tough playing tempo, but it’s things that can be fixed.”
Against a UCF offense that has converted 51% of its third downs (26th in FBS), forcing turnovers would aid the Tech cause. The Jackets procured four takeaways from FCS Western Carolina, they had one each against Clemson and Ole Miss over a total of 26 possessions.
UCF has given the ball away five times this season.
Can Jackets bounce back?
A theory was advanced this week that the humbling loss to Ole Miss could be a turning-point moment for the Jackets, a result that could push team leaders to take control over the team and more firmly hold teammates accountable. Collins said at his weekly Tuesday news conference that Walton spoke at a defensive team meeting that morning with a message that the coach termed poignant, one that the defense responded to with an energetic practice.
Walton said that he encouraged players to banish negative thoughts and to practice with the same intensity level that they play with on game days.
“It’s just a different vibe this week, so it’s been good,” Walton said.
A fan might wonder why the dreadful finish of last season or the 41-10 loss to Clemson in the season opener wasn’t enough to inspire the Jackets to dig deeper at practice, or why those habits haven’t been ingrained in general. The Jackets have recovered from a loss like the one to Ole Miss previously. In 2019, Tech lost at home to Virginia Tech 45-0, which was Tech’s first home shutout loss since 1957. Less than a week later, the Jackets defeated N.C. State 28-26 on a Thursday night.
Uncommon road trip
Tech’s trip to UCF, a member of the American Athletic Conference, will be the second road game in Collins’ tenure against a team from a Group of Five conference. The first did not go well, when the Jackets lost 24-2 at Temple (Collins’ former team) in 2019, Collins’ first season. Tech also lost to a G-5 school in 2018, a 49-38 loss at South Florida. (It could be argued that UCF, on its way to the Big 12 next year, is a G-5 school in name only.)
Games at G-5 opponents have proved hazardous for ACC schools. Virginia Tech lost at Old Dominion in the first full week of the season, and North Carolina (Appalachian State and Georgia State), N.C. State (East Carolina) and Louisville (UCF) all had close calls in road wins over opponents from G-5 schools.
There is, of course, a financial component to scheduling such games. Bringing in an opponent from the American Athletic, Sun Belt or other non-power FBS conferences for a single home game, while enhancing the probability of winning, can cost the home team $1 million or more. (Tech is scheduled to play Bowling Green next year at a cost of $1.1 million.) But in a home-and-home series with such schools, the guaranteed payments between the schools are a wash.
After UCF, Tech’s next scheduled road game against a G-5 school will not require much of a trip – Georgia State in 2026. The Panthers and Jackets will have their first-ever football meeting in 2024 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.