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After enduring nightmare, UCF completes dream finish

Matt Zemek

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

UCF Knights

USF and UCF got American Conference 2020 schedules Tuesday

Florida Football Insiders

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday afternoon the American Athletic Conference made official is 2020 football dates for opponents for its conference members. And, that means UCF and USF got to look for the first time at their full conference slates and when they are playing whom.

First for the Knights, they learned that they will open year three of coach Josh Heupel’s conference play on Thursday night September 24th at East Carolina. It is one of three stand-alone weeknight(day) games UCF has on their schedule.

The next one will be Friday night October 16th, as UCF travels to play the Memphis Tigers. That’s a team that the Knights defeated for two Conference Championship Game victories in 2017 and 18.

UCF will also play a traditional “War on I-4” game with the rival Bulls on the Friday after Thanksgiving November 27th. This will be the fourth straight year of playing on “Black Friday.”

As for the Knights other part of the league schedule, they will have their AAC home opener with Tulsa on Saturday October 3rd and then, finish the slate with two huge home matchups with Temple Saturday November 14th followed by Cincinnati at Spectrum Stadium the following week.

For the Bulls, who welcome first year coach Jeff Scott in 2020, they will only have two standalone appearances in conference play. Those will be a Friday night home game October 23rd with Tulsa and then, the previously mentioned final rivalry game with UCF on Friday November 27th.

The Bulls first conference game of the season will be at Cincinnati on October 3rd, while the home opener is East Carolina the following week at Raymond James Stadium.

USF has a tough road slate beginning at Temple on October 17th and then, after the Friday night home game with Tulsa, playing at Memphis November 7th and at Houston November 14th.

The conference is playing 2020 with only 11 members, as UConn has departed and gone back to the Big East. This will also be the first time that the AAC doesn’t play a two six team division format and will instead take the top two ranked teams in conference play for it’s December Championship Game.

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UCF Knights

Speedy former UCF RB Killins looks to impress at Shrine Bowl

Florida Football Insiders

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One-player eager to start showcasing himself Saturday afternoon in the pre-draft process  in St Petersburg is former UCF speedster RB, Adrian Killins.

Killins ,who just finished four years of highlight runs and touchdowns for the the Knights will participate in the East-West Shrine Bowl.

Killins is generously listed at 5’9 and 165 lb. and came UCF without much fanfare from Daytona Mainland High School. However, he had been an explosive player on the football gridiron, and he was also a former two time 3A State 200m track champion before coming to Orlando.

Once at UCF in 2016, Killins immediately showed off his explosiveness and moniker of “fastest player in college football” with a 100-yard kickoff return at ECU and an 87 yard touchdown run at “the Big House” in Ann Arbor against Michigan.

His best season was his sophomore year, when he was named First Team All American Athletic Conference RB, as he rushed for 790 yards and 10 touchdowns to lead UCF. He showed versatility and caught another additional 25 passes for 169 yards.

He also set a UCF record for longest play from scrimmage that still stands, in the UCF regular season win over Memphis, as he took a handoff and the looked like a missle racing down the sideline:

Killins helped the Knights experience their greatest season ever at 13 – 0 with not only a thrilling double-overtime conference title game rematch win over the Tigers, but a New Year’s Day upset of SEC Powerhouse Auburn in the Peach Bowl for the perfect season.

His next two years under Josh Heupel and his new coaching staff were not as spectacular. But, he still he would make the occasional explosive run and finished his career with over 1,700 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns.

He did leave a final impression with his 115 yards and 1 TD in the regular season finale with USF.

Now, he knows that with his smaller size, even with blazing speed, he will be challenged to stick on an NFL roster, and another way might be as a kick returner. Killins left UCF with a career 21.8 avg on 47 returns as a Knight.

He will likely need to show that part of his game to help him get a realistic shot at the next level. And, we wait to see if there will be explosive plays from him Saturday.

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