When a school goes from winning its conference and a major bowl game to a losing record in one season, heads will roll. In UCF's case, those heads belong to the defensive coordinator and the linebackers coach.
Over the weekend, UCF Head Coach George O'Leary informed Defensive Coordinator John Skladany and Linebackers Coach Al Seamonson that their contracts would not be renewed. These moves surprised some as UCF was 13th in the nation in total defense this season, but anyone that knows O'Leary knows that he does not pull any punches or mince his words.
In recent weeks, O'Leary has been critical of the performance of the UCF defense in radio interviews and press conferences saying that, "stats are deceiving." A look into the statistical breakdown of the Knights' defense shows just how deceiving those statistics can be.
UCF played four non-conference games this season and those games came against FCS Charleston-Southern, Boston College, Florida International, and BYU. Against those four teams, UCF gave up an average of 189.5 yards a contest which was the third-best total for non-conference games in the nation trailing only California and Michigan State. Here are the per-game totals of the UCF defense in those four contests:
- Charleston Southern - 119 yards
- Boston College - 141 yards
- FIU - 238 yards
- BYU - 260 yards
In conference play, the Knights gave up nearly double that total as they allowed 360.3 yards per contest. Here are the per-game totals of the UCF defense against Conference USA opponents:
- Marshall - 130 yards
- SMU - 440 yards
- UAB - 501 yards
- Memphis - 134 yards
- Tulsa - 454 yards
- Southern Miss - 519 yards
- East Carolina - 389 yards
- UTEP - 315 yards
In four of their five wins, the Knights held their opponents under 200 yards but those four wins came against schools that had a combined won-loss record of 14-33 this season. The low point of the season defensively was when the Knights gave up 501 yards to UAB who was without its starting quarterback and running back. Despite missing both playmakers, the Blazers ran for 174 yards and threw for 327 yards. On the season, only Memphis permitted more yards to the Blazers.
UCF sorely missed the pass-rushing skills of two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Miller as the team saw its 2010 sack total of 32 drop to just 17 in 2011. That led to their 26th overall ranking in sacks last season dropping down to 89th in 2011.That lack of a pass rush led to fewer mistakes by the opposition as the Knights were 77th in the nation in interceptions and 103rd in fumble recoveries as a defensive unit. Overall, the defense created just 13 turnovers in 12 contests this season.
One overlooked factor that helped the Knights' overall defensive numbers was that its offense was the sixth best in the nation in time of possession as the unit was on the field nearly 34 minutes a contest. In their five wins, the Knights' offense controlled the ball for 32:18 against Charleston Southern, 37:25 against Boston College, 40:14 against Marshall, 40:03 against Memphis, and 27:02 in its last victory against UTEP. It is worth noting that the game against Marshall was played in a torrential downpour throughout the entire game that severely hampered Marshall's passing attack that it used in previous defeats of both Southern Miss and Louisville. The quick-strike offenses of East Carolina, Tulsa, and SMU all were very successful despite losing the time of possession battle but even UAB kept the Knights on the field for 34:19 when they were able to compile 501 yards with a short-handed offense.
Conference USA poses some unique challenges to defensive coaches in that the league as a whole runs rather wide-open offenses and innovative minds such as Kevin Sumlin, Larry Fedora, and June Jones keep defensive coordinators up at night with their aggressive play-calling and scheming. While UCF's overall defensive numbers looked good, its inability to put pressure on the quarterback along with its inability to force turnovers allowed offenses within the conference to operate practically at will against the conservative scheme that Skladany and his staff employed throughout the season.
The defense was 10th best in the nation in third down defense, 18th best in preventing long plays from the line of scrimmage, and 11th best in scoring defense allowing just 18.3 points a contest. Yet, the splits show that O'Leary's comments about statistics being deceiving were well-founded and the school now begins the search for its third defensive coordinator since the end of the 2007 season.
Local media types such as Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi and radio host Shot Doctor are already beating the drum for former Florida and Illinois head coach Ron Zook to get the job given his ties to the state and his recruiting capabilities that would fill both the coaching need and the recruiting needs vacated by talented recruiter David Kelly's earlier dismissal.