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August 2, 2013ORLANDO, Fla. - There's no question that UCF thought it was stepping into a much different situation when officials initially decided to accept an invitation to the Big East Conference.
That new opportunity is now named the American Athletic Conference, and entering the 2013 football season minus a big name programs and a long-awaited renewal of its rivalry with South Florida, this new chapter in Knights football in some ways isn't much different from its old one on paper.
But don't think for a second that's how UCF coach George O'Leary sees it.
With one year left of guaranteed Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying status going to the new league's champion, and team loaded on offense, O'Leary enters his 10th season with the Knights with his eyes wide open.
"It gives us the opportunity to play at the highest level," O'Leary said Thursday at UCF's annual media day. "The conference championship now has a different feel with a BCS game involved. So we have a lot to look forward to."
Picked to finish fourth during last week's AAC preseason gathering, the Knights enter 2013 having lost six starters on defense that helped the Knights post a 10-4 record and victory in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl.
Back, though are six starters on an offense that O'Leary said is "the most explosive offense since I've been here."
At the helm of that offensive unit is redshirt junior Blake Bortles, who enters his second year as the starting quarterback coming off a 25-touchdown sophomore season.
With a schedule includes trips to Penn State and Louisville home matchups with South Carolina and rival South Florida, Bortles said it's no secret that the Knights know the kind of position another double-digit victory season could put them in.
"It's a new year, a new schedule, a new conference and all that, but from a quarterback standpoint it's just trying to do what I can do to make this team win and help this team win," Bortles said. "We look forward to the new conference and playing new teams and new names."
One of the units virtually untouched by graduation was Bortles' receiving corps, which returns all three of its top three pass catchers in redshirt junior J.J. Worton (44 receptions), senior Jeff Godfrey (39) and junior Rannell Hall (35). Sophomore Breshad Perriman is also expected to produce this season coming off a freshman campaign that saw him haul in 26 receptions.
O'Leary said having so many capable hands around Bortles is a problem he enjoys having.
"I think that there's only one ball," O'Leary said. "But I think the guys out there all have a role. You may not be catching the ball, but you have a whole lot of other things to do."
Defensively O'Leary acknowledged that there are certainly more holes to fill, but just as quickly said that he expects a unit with five returning starters to still be able to stop teams.
A lot of that responsibility will fall on redshirt junior safety Clayton Geathers and junior linebacker Terrance Plummer, who were second and third, respectively, in tackles last season. Geathers in particular will be counted on to fill the void of departed secondary stalwarts Kemal Ishmael and A.J. Bouye.
"I wanted A.J. and I watched Kemal and how they got everybody together," Geathers said. "Now it's my turn to do it. I wouldn't say it's pressure, but I'd say it's now time to show people we can have that commitment and that dedication the game of football and that we can have that chemistry to come together."
The Knights open the season at home Aug. 29 against Akron.