The UCF Knights won’t have the chance to proclaim themselves “National Champions”. Most of America thinks that’s a good thing. The Knights, as I have said repeatedly over the past month, shouldn’t care what outsiders think.
Two straight perfect regular seasons, two straight “New Year’s Six” bowl appearances, and two straight admirable performances against SEC teams in bowl games — overall point differential: minus-one (66 points scored, 67 allowed) — represent a tremendous body of achievement.
That UCF forged this two-year feat under two separate head coaches, and with a 2018 defense which lacked Shaquem Griffin, only magnifies what the Knights accomplished. They lost to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl by only one score despite playing without McKenzie Milton, their most important player.
UCF’s 40-32 loss was the most compelling and interesting New Year’s Six bowl. That is something the Knights and their fans can appreciate, even if the national media doesn’t focus on that talking point.
Ohio State might have beaten Washington by only five points in the Rose Bowl, but that game was 28-3 early in the second half and never truly competitive. Had Washington recovered an onside kick with roughly 40 seconds left, okay… but UCF actually had a chance to tie the game in the final minute with the ball, and the Knights led LSU 14-3 before that ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which changed the flow of the contest. The Fiesta Bowl was much more genuinely competitive than the Rose.
The other four New Year’s Six games? ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.
Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Florida throttled Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Georgia and Michigan, respectively. UCF really did co-create the best NY6 showcase this bowl season… and without Milton. LSU deserves — and should receive — ample credit for sucking it up without several defensive starters and a number of other reserves, primarily on defense. The Tigers did not sulk in their bowl game. They honored the SEC by competing vigorously and earning a victory.
Nevertheless, UCF continuously survived moments in this game — chiefly with LSU in the Knights’ red zone — when the score could have gotten out of hand. The Knights persevered throughout this battle, and had their receivers come up with a few clutch catches, the Fiesta Bowl might have been closer than it was heading into the final minutes of regulation. UCF’s evident speed on offense did catch LSU’s backups horribly out of position. The Knights’ skill and athleticism made an imprint on this game — just not with the depth or consistency needed to win.
UCF, in a fuller and larger view, reaffirmed its status within the Group of Five and the AAC in this game. No other AAC team would have been able to threaten LSU with its speed the way UCF did. Cincinnati’s defense was gashed by Virginia Tech for much of a very entertaining Military Bowl. I doubt the Bearcats would have been able to handle LSU’s studs to the extent the Knights managed to do. Fresno State — the team which finished second behind UCF in the Group of Five this season — might have been able to pose a more physical smashmouth-style challenge to LSU, but the Bulldogs did not have the speed UCF possessed, and that is centrally important when playing SEC teams. Their defensive linemen and linebackers (even their backups) are simply a lot faster than the players at the same positions in other conferences.
UCF might have been playing LSU backups, but given its own limitations, it did relatively well under the circumstances. The more one thinks about this game, the more it is remarkable how close it was. Even in a rare defeat, this team showed every last ounce of the resilience which carried it to such lofty heights.
As this season comes to an end, I am struck by how many Americans reveled in seeing UCF lose. To an extent, that is natural, and obviously, the media had a role in publicizing UCF’s national championship proclamation last January. A lot of people didn’t necessarily hate UCF itself; they hated the media for giving UCF such an extended platform in the spotlight. Similarly, Americans didn’t necessarily hate Tim Tebow when ESPN put him on the tube 24-7 during his NFL days; Americans hated ESPN for “Tebow-izing” their content. It’s much the same with UCF.
Nevertheless, even if the media was at fault more than UCF, the national title proclamation rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
My response: Who cares? Why can’t UCF throw its own party? Who got hurt? Who died? No one. It’s FUN. Sports are meant to be FUN. Lighten up, America. UCF was just enjoying its success, something we all should do.
The larger story surrounding UCF is that, much like Boise State a decade ago, it is very hard to earn respect in college football. This is because SEC and other power conference fans go through several tough games a season, and they don’t want an outsider crashing their party with a comparatively lighter schedule. UCF should NOT feel it needs to schedule a 2-for-1 anytime soon, but the Knights DO have to find a high-end opponent and get a one-shot, neutral-site deal, the way Chris Petersen and Boise State did in their time.
Boise State beat Virginia Tech in the midst of the Hokies’ ACC golden age in 2010, and then beat Georgia in Atlanta in 2011, in a year when the Bulldogs won the SEC East and were a very good team. Those wins didn’t turn SEC observers into complete Boise State fans, far from it, but they DID at least show that Boise State was willing to play people anywhere, and they showed that the Broncos could in fact win such games when given the chance.
The national media is wrong about the 2-for-1 and the need to accept it, but the national media is not incorrect in saying that UCF does need to find ways to play elite Power Five schools. Danny White just needs to find the right partner under the right circumstances.
UCF has put in so much good work over the past two years, but in many ways, the journey is only just beginning. Boise State won the 2007 Fiesta Bowl over Oklahoma, and the Broncos had to carry that victory forward. They did. They are still relevant in the Group of Five world — not the best, but regularly in the hunt for that championship and the New Year’s Six most seasons. UCF faces that challenge now, and the task just got tougher with Houston landing Dana Holgorsen as its new head coach.
The Knights benefited from a weak AAC in 2018 — let’s not pretend that this conference was particularly good (it wasn’t). They have to anticipate that the AAC will get stronger, which means they are probably going to lose a game in conference play. In order to make more New Year’s Six bowls, UCF will need high-quality non-conference wins on its resume in the future.
The Knights have won respect from people who appreciate what they had to go through. They know, of course, that the battle for respect never ends. It is time to win new battles in 2019 and beyond.
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