As the two-time defending American Athletic Conference champions, the winless Knights enter their first conference matchup with not much to lose but a lot to prove.
Going into Saturday’s noon conference game, UCF (0-4, 0-0 in AAC) is 15-1 all-time in the AAC and holds a 5-1 all-time advantage over Tulane, outscoring the Green Wave 209-90.
“We have a big target on our back,” redshirt senior Joseph Puopolo said. “We’re not looking ahead at any of the other games. We’re just focusing on Tulane right now. This is a must-win game.
“[Coaches are] saying that, ‘It’s a new season now. Basically, we’re 0-0 and conference is the main goal. We’re out there to win the conference.’”
As UCF prepares, a sense of revival has filled the squad.
“There is a different attitude when conference season starts … I can feel it on the kids,” head coach George O’Leary said. “They understand the importance of what the goals are and what we want to attain.”
The Knights will be bolstered by the return of junior running back Dontravious Wilson, who has been out with a leg injury since the second half of the season opener. He will bring a veteran presence to a backfield that has seen true freshman Taj McGowan and redshirt freshman C.J. Jones carry the load.
Ranked last among 127 FBS teams in rushing offense with 70.5 yards per game, the Knights need Wilson’s presence. He was second behind the departed William Stanback last season with 347 yards and three touchdowns on 95 carries.
The young and maturing Knights squad, which has had 19 freshmen take the field this season, including 11 true freshmen, have not found a way to finish games.
They have held a halftime lead in three games, but each lead has slipped away after being outscored, 65-10 total, in the second half throughout the first four games.
“What I see is a team of two halves,” O’Leary said. “[What it] really comes down to [in] the second half with this football team is turnovers, missed tackles and MAs [missed assignments].”
With five-consecutive conference wins under their belt, the Knights’ mid-day matinee presents a perfect opportunity to score their first win as Tulane is ranked No. 106 in total defense, giving up 465.7 yards per game.
“I’m glad we were able to go through the first few games that we had so we can go into the conference knowing what we need to work on, improve on,” linebacker Chequan Burkett said. “I respect every position they have on the field.”
Victor Ng is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @_victorT24.