One of the great truths of life — a truth connected to lived experience and not confined to the dry and stale pages of theory — that while winning and achievement and success are all great, the way in which one reaches those satisfying plateaus affects the way we think about them and remember them.
Success which comes from a lucky break, or victory in competition which flows from an opponent’s injury or mistake, is still a triumph. Yet, if that triumph comes from outside factors as much as — or more than — our own excellence or quality, it carries a different feeling. It is not a lesser feeling or an inferior feeling, but the shape of the memory is different.
Athletes relish championships any way they can win them. Coaches covet trophies any way they can lift them. When a season ends, the only urgent question for the people who participate in a bottom-line business is whether they won or lost.
Yet, as the iconic sportswriter Grantland Rice reminds us, “how you played the game” IS a part of the tapestry sports weave into our lives. Most of us would focus on winning and losing — which is where we would disagree with Mr. Rice — but the way in which one wins DOES have an affect on how we process these games people play.
With this in mind, the UCF Knights — who won’t make the College Football Playoff — have in many ways clinched the No. 1 ranking in college football this season.
No, I am not referring to an official rankings revelation. No, I am not referring to a playoff seed. No, I am not referring to any computer formula or matrix or index.
UCF has already won a No. 1 ranking in that no team had to overcome more in order to attain a perfect regular-season record for the second straight year.
Alabama might have rallied to beat Georgia with Jalen Hurts in the SEC Championship Game, but Hurts had already made a national championship game and had a large number of live-game snaps under his belt. He is also surrounded by a team which is used to making the College Football Playoff and used to competing for national titles.
UCF and Darriel Mack, Jr. did not have the pedigree of Alabama or the experience of Hurts. The program and its quarterback did have one game against East Carolina in which to get used to life after McKenzie Milton, but no one could have known then — on that night in Greenville, N.C. — that Milton would in fact be injured, and in a horrific way, a month later. Life after Milton was supposed to begin in spring ball and summer training camp in 2019.
When Mack relieved Milton against ECU, the full expectation — and the reality of UCF’s situation — was that Milton would be back for the Temple game, which he was. Milton guided the Knights to a few decisive November wins, and the team looked as good as it possibly could have looked heading into Tampa for the USF game on Nov. 23.
Then came the Milton injury, and while a combination of adrenaline and rugged defense lifted UCF to victory that evening, the Knights had defeated a USF squad which lost its last five games of the regular season and cratered in the face of robust opposition.
In this AAC Championship Game against Memphis on Saturday afternoon in Orlando, UCF and Mack took the field KNOWING Milton would not be available. They took the field KNOWING there was no viable backup option. They knew Memphis would provide formidable opposition after last year’s overtime shootout in a previous AAC title clash.
This was not ECU. This was not the sudden-change situation against USF. This was a game with a full week of preparation for the situation the Knights never wanted to face, never wanted to inhabit, never wanted to think about.
A team had to absorb not just the reality of being without Milton, its foremost player, but of absorbing the trauma of his injury and the emotional roller-coaster created by it.
It would have been so easy for this team to play Memphis with an empty emotional fuel tank, drained by the past whirlwind of a week. It would have been so easy for this team to lose heart if things did turn bad in the first quarter. It would have been so easy for Mack to be overwhelmed by the moment. It would have been so easy for UCF — if Mack did indeed struggle — to cave in and allow this game to slip away.
Any reasonable person would have looked at this game and concluded, before it began, that UCF and Mack needed a good start. They need to think positive thoughts and visualize positive turns of events in the first half.
The actual first half couldn’t have been more different from that ideal scenario.
Try two touchdowns allowed in the first three minutes.
Try a river of fumbles from Mack, who was making the right reads and processing the game well, but simply wasn’t finishing plays with ball security.
Try a Swiss-cheese defense which kept getting gashed for huge runs by Memphis running back Darrell Henderson.
UCF received shaky play from Mack, an untimely and severe regression from a defense which had been outstanding against Cincinnati and USF, and didn’t have Milton available to rescue the game and make everything okay. Midway through the second quarter, Memphis led 31-14 and had the ball inside the UCF 40, moving easily on the ground. It seemed like a matter of moments until the Tigers went up 38-14 and essentially put the game to bed before halftime.
No one would have blamed UCF for losing faith. No one would have blamed the Knights for pulling the rip cord and bailing. No one would have skewered a team for getting this far and then finally running out of gas with its star quarterback injured.
Try your best. Don’t give up. These familiar sayings — cliched though they are — were all UCF could turn to in that moment. FIGHT. COMPETE. WORK.
Yet, there is a vast ocean of difference between being able to compete, and being able to compete WELL.
Who, in that moment — with Memphis roughly 35 yards from a 24-point lead and running downhill on nearly every play — thought UCF really and truly could win?
Maybe you are reading this and saying, “Yes, I kept the faith.” I will take you at your word. Kudos for trusting this team.
Yet, most rational inclinations at that point all pointed in one direction: to a first loss of the season, to the loss of a New Year’s Six bowl, to a miserable ending whose pain would be magnified because a fully healthy team — more precisely, a fully healthy Milton — almost surely would have beaten Memphis. A loss would not have been a verdict on this team. It would have been the product of a cruel break, a nasty turn of events. There is nothing to learn from something like that. Life can simply be brutally unfair, and so it was that UCF was getting snowed in by a convergence of unfortunate circumstances.
A sense of helplessness could have overpowered the Knights in that moment. The weight of misfortune UCF could have felt at the time might have been far too great to summon forth the effort needed to not only compete, but compete WELL.
Yet, from the rubble and misery of that moment — down 17, staring at a bloodbath and the ruination of a second straight perfect regular season — UCF did the improbable: no, not that it competed and tried and fought… but that it competed WELL.
Mack not only stopped fumbling. He hit deep passes and made virtually all the plays which were available for him to make. He wasn’t merely a caretaker of the offense; he blossomed into a real field general who took command of the chaos surrounding him.
The defense — much as it did against Temple — shook off an atrocious first half and played a superb second half, allowing only three points after the break. UCF’s goal-line stand (and a bad decision by Memphis coach Mike Norvell to kick a 19-yard field goal) kept the Knights within one score at 41-35, and after that moment, they dominated down the stretch. The defense’s hard work in 10 quarters — the last two against Temple and all eight against Cincy and USF — did not vanish on this day. The Knights’ defense remembered it could still help the offense and complete the dream of a second straight perfect season.
What started as a wave in the third quarter — as UCF battled back from a 38-21 halftime deficit — became a tsunami in the fourth quarter:
A team without McKenzie Milton, and whose defense got torched for 38 points in one half, pitched a 21-0 shutout in those final 15 minutes.
Nearly done and dusted midway through the second quarter — with Memphis having its boots on their throats — the Knights didn’t merely stay alive. They didn’t merely show competitive resilience.
They balled. They flourished. They dominated.
Without No. 10 in their huddle.
Without the central engine behind these two incredibly successful regular seasons in 2017 and 2018.
Without Scott Frost, the man who first showed this team how to win.
No, UCF lacked all those ingredients on Saturday, but with Josh Heupel and Darriel Mack both showing how capable they were of leading next year’s team to new heights, this year’s team completed its dream.
Next year can wait.
This year has now become even more remarkable than previously imagined.
If UCF had won this game in a “normal” way — dominating early and carrying that level of play through 60 minutes — the narrative from the rest of the country would have been, “Well, of course the AAC sucked. It was never going to matter that Milton was out. Memphis wasn’t that great.”
The way in which you win — not just the fact that you won — changes the way you, as a competitor or a fan, process the experience.
For UCF to win THIS way — to complete its second straight perfect regular season in the face of so much adversity and misfortune — feels almost like an AAC championship AND a New Year’s Six bowl victory combined. This is such a complete triumph, such total vindication of this whole roster, top to bottom, that the New Year’s Six proving ground (probably against an SEC team) doesn’t have to do anything to improve the way this team is remembered.
After a fightback such as this under the circumstances UCF faced, this 2018 team in Orlando already has its equivalent of last season’s Peach Bowl against Auburn. If it can somehow win another NY6 bowl, that would be a bonus.. but the act of proving that this team is so much more than McKenzie Milton? That has already been completed
UCF has fully realized its dream… after enduring a supreme first-half Knightmare.
UCF has already forged the kind of memory which is instantly iconic, and will not fade or grow dim 50 years from now.
Hyperbole? Not in light of everything UCF faced.
That’s what it feels like to achieve the impossible dream.
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