ORLANDO — With two double-digit-win seasons in the past three years, Central Florida coach George O’Leary has had plenty to celebrate recently.
The Knights are no longer jumping to the Big East Conference they thought they were entering, but a new American Athletic Conference with one remaining year of Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying status is something.
O’Leary isn’t satisfied just having an opportunity to make a splash in 2013 with a schedule that also includes Penn State and South Carolina, though. He wants to finally see UCF realize all the potential he’s been trumpeting.
“I think you’re judged on your out-of-conference wins,” said O’Leary, whose team opens the season tonight against Akron. “I think the perception, with any conference, is you’re going to have competitive teams. I think out of conference is where the nation judges you. ... You’ve got to win those games. If you want to sit there and play that way, you’ve got to beat those people. That’s what the nature of the game is.”
To make that next step, UCF will rely heavily on junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who is moving into his second year as the starter and is on several national award watch lists. He’ll anchor an offense that returns six starters, compared to just five for the defense.
From his perspective, Bortles said he’s ready for the challenge of leading this team.
“I think being able to play and perform has to do with earning everybody on the team’s respect,” Bortles said. “So I think this year there’s definitely a little more of that and a little more trust. I’ve been able to do that by the guys I’m surrounded by.”
During last season’s 56-14 season-opening win at Akron, there wasn’t much UCF wasn’t able to do well against the Zips.
The teams meet again with rosters that are mostly intact from a year ago.
The biggest difference is that Zips sophomore quarterback Kyle Pohl will be making his first career start.
Still, O’Leary has prepared his young secondary to face another fast-paced air attack that became the calling card in Terry Bowden’s first season in Akron. O’Leary said keeping them boxed up is paramount.
“They’re going to make some catches, you just gotta be able to make sure there’s not hidden yardage in the plays,” O’Leary said. “You want to basically get them off in three (downs) and hold on to the ball on them. That’s how you handle things.”
Bortles spent part of the preseason resting a bruised throwing hand, but he said he’s more concerned about what he hasn’t seen from the revamped Zips.
“It’s a new team and a new year. So just basing things off last year’s film and trying to prepare that way is definitely a challenge,” Bortles said. “Then really just the unknown of what’s going to happen. But we’re getting ready and we’re going to be at the best we possibly can.”