UCF has been something of a litmus test in the world of college football the last few seasons. How you feel about the program likely depends on your feelings on the broader aspects of the sport. Some root for the program to continue its recent ascent to the top of the Group of Five and hope it can topple the more established powers at the top and break into the College Football Playoff. The rest find the Knights to be an obnoxious pest and think that doing things like claiming national titles in an era when there's a playoff designed to determine that is ludicrous. They root for the comeuppance of a program trying too hard to rock the boat.

There's no wiggle room between the two sides. This might be the program's greatest achievement. The most polarizing programs are often the most successful, and UCF reaching this point is a testament to what it has accomplished. How long it can continue to do so is up to the Knights themselves, and they head into 2020 with cracks starting to show.

Nevertheless, UCF will enter the 2020 season inside the top 25 of our CBS Sports 130 rankings

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 29 | Achievements: Won Gasparilla Bowl over Marshall, 48-25

The Knights finished 10-3 last season, the third straight year they won at least 10 games while also beating rival South Florida. Still, considering the team went 25-1 the two seasons prior, a three-loss season felt like something of a disappointment. UCF lost two conference games as well. When it fell to Cincinnati on Oct. 24, UCF didn't just end a 17-game conference win streak (the previous loss was to USF on Nov. 26, 2016) but ultimately cost itself the division title. UCF finished behind Cincinnati in the AAC East and didn't reach the conference title game for the first time in three years.

Key departures

  • WR Gabriel Davis: The teams only early departure, Davis led UCF in receiving each of the last two seasons and finished last year with 72 catches for 1,241 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was a fourth-round selection of the Buffalo Bills in the NFL Draft and UCF's only draft selection this year.
  • RB Adrian Killins: Killins closed out a productive career. The diminutive running back was a big-play threat with high-end speed who contributed to the offense as both a runner and pass-catcher and also provided a bit on special teams in the return game.
  • LB Nate Evans: Evans led the Knights in tackles, finishing with 112. That was 34 more than anybody else on the team. While he only had one sack, Evans had 13 tackles for loss overall as well as seven QB hurries and four passes defended. He was a lynchpin of the UCF defense.
  • DL Brendon Hayes: Hayes was the team's most disruptive player in the trenches. He led the team with 7.5 sacks and had 10 QB hurries, finishing with 10 tackles for loss overall and forced a fumble.
  • CB Nevelle Clark: Clark was a leader of the secondary. He finished with only two interceptions in 11 games last season but took one of them to the house against UConn. He finished the season with 11 passes broken up to go with those picks.
  • Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby: Lebby had been on the UCF staff the last two seasons, spending 2019 as both offensive coordinator and QB coach, but he left to take on the same roles at Ole Miss under Lane Kiffin.

Who's back?

  • QB Dillon Gabriel: Overall, it'd be hard to quantify Gabriel's freshman season as anything other than a success. There's room for improvement, sure, but he finished the year with 3,653 yards passing, 29 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Also, it's not a coincidence that all seven of those interceptions came in three games against Pitt, Cincinnati and Tulsa. UCF lost all three. Gabriel will likely continue to be pushed by Darriel Mack, but he should begin the season as the team's starter.
  • RB Otis Anderson: Anderson enters his senior season without his partner-in-crime Adrian Killins. While Anderson doesn't have the overall speed Killins provided, he's more of a workhorse and is just as versatile. He led the team in rushing last season with 726 yards but had 665 more as a receiver and returner. He'll be the player the offense runs through in 2020.
  • DL Kenny Turnier: While he only finished with 3.5 sacks, Turnier led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss last season. He's not a pass-rushing disruptor, but he's a big part of a defense that must replace a couple of key players.

Fresh faces

  • OL Marcus Tatum: Tatum is a graduate transfer from Tennessee who could be the team's starting left tackle in 2020. He appeared in 29 games for the Vols over the last three seasons.
  • Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh: Golesh essentially replaces Lebby on the UCF staff. He comes to Orlando, Florida, from Iowa State where he had been the Cyclones' tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator (roles he had at Illinois and Toledo as well). He'll be sharing the offensive coordinator role with Anthony Tucker while continuing to coach tight ends.

Critical games

  • Sept. 4 vs. North Carolina: As a program constantly seeking respect from the Power Five, any chance to show your prowess against such a program is one that must be capitalized upon. North Carolina enters as a team many see as a darkhorse in the ACC. If the Knights can open the year with a win over the Tar Heels, it'll send a message and could look very good on the resume at the end of the season.
  • Oct. 16 at Memphis: We don't know how different Memphis will look in 2020 without Mike Norvell, but it's still likely to be one of the top teams in the AAC. This is a possible conference title game preview.
  • Nov. 21 vs. Cincinnati: Of course, to reach the AAC championship, UCF will have to get past Cincinnati first. The Knights will be looking for revenge when the Bearcats head to Orlando in late November.
  • Nov. 27 at South Florida: It's the War on I-4, baby. It's always critical.

2020 outlook

Scott Frost built UCF into a Group of Five powerhouse, and it's been up to Josh Heupel to maintain that. It's not unfair to say that some cracks have started to show entering 2020, considering this is a team that failed to win its division last season. Was last year a young team taking some lumps, or a sign of things to come?

The gap -- real or perceived -- between UCF and the rest of the AAC no longer appears as large. What's more concerning is that after finishing with one of the top two recruiting classes in the AAC from 2017-19, UCF's 2020 class ranked fifth in the conference last season and No. 73 overall.

The 2020 season will be pivotal for UCF if it wants to stay at the top of the mountain. As hard as it is to reach the top, it's more difficult staying there, which is something UCF is well aware of right now. The Knights open as the favorite to win the AAC Championship Game (+130), according to William Hill Sportsbook.