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UCF Knights

Denied for College Football Playoff UCF ends up back in Fiesta Bowl

Matt Zemek

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Legend Of the Knights Of The Gridiron. It’s a catchy image.

Knights are associated with valor and chivalry and derring-do. No, playing football is not an act of heroism, but the Knights of the Gridiron have certainly covered themselves in glory. UCF just notched consecutive perfect seasons. Moreover, they did so without McKenzie Milton in the AAC Championship Game rematch with Memphis, and after falling behind by 17 points with Memphis driving in UCF territory.

Everyone on this team gave everything he had. When it would have been admirable enough to merely make the Memphis game close, the Knights somehow found it within themselves to go above and beyond. They were so good in the second half against Memphis — as they have been in second halves all season long — that this game wasn’t even all that close in the end!

UCF by 15: 56-41. The end of this contest wasn’t even all that dramatic. As soon as UCF reached chip-shot field goal range, up by eight points with roughly three minutes left, it was pretty much a fait accompli. UCF could have been stopped three times, and a short kick would have ended the contest anyway.

Of course, however, UCF wasn’t stopped. Nothing could stop the Knights after they stopped Memphis at the goal line, down 38-35, late in the third quarter. They held Memphis to a field goal and then dump-trucked the Tigers in a 21-0 fourth-quarter avalanche of flawless football… with Milton surely beaming with pride as he watched a TV screen while recovering from the November 23 injury which placed UCF’s grandest aspirations in jeopardy.

This team was bigger than its misfortunes. It towered over that heartbreaking moment in Tampa against USF. It gathered itself emotionally and realized it had more than enough fuel for the regular-season finish line. It was in many ways the program’s greatest masterpiece, the most perfect declaration of how deep, resourceful, and ultimately COMPLETE it was… and is… and continues to be.

Now, as bowl season arrives and UCF celebrates the fact that it has become the first Group of Five team to make back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl appearances, the Knights have been taken to Glendale, Arizona, for the Fiesta Bowl.

The Peach Bowl win over Auburn was certainly sweet, and it did enable UCF to claim a share of the 2017 “national championship” –– who cares what the outsiders and critics think? — but if the Memphis comeback on Saturday was the greatest moment in this extraordinary two-year run, the most important moment in the history of UCF football came in the desert nearly five years ago.

First of all, UCF fans: Just so you know, there were TWO 2014 Fiesta Bowls. I have to say this for the official record, since there was a Fiesta Bowl played on December 31, 2014, and January 1, 2014.

(You can trip people up in college football trivia by asking questions such as, “Who won the 1981 Fiesta Bowl?” Answer: There was no 1981 Fiesta Bowl. The 1980 season had a 1980 Fiesta Bowl in December. The 1981 season had a January Fiesta Bowl played on New Year’s Day of 1982. That’s when the Fiesta Bowl became a top-tier bowl, which it still is.)

The December 2014 game was Boise State-Arizona. That’s not a throwaway detail, either. There is a reason to mention Boise State.

The legend of Boise State began in the Fiesta Bowl nearly eight years earlier in that iconic game against Oklahoma. That night, when Chris Petersen called a Statue of Liberty play for a game-winning 2-point conversion, marked a huge moment for UCF and all the other programs which dreamed of playing on the big stage against the big boys. If Boise State had been blasted by 30 points on that night, would UCF have ever been able to play Baylor in the January 2014 Fiesta Bowl?

It’s not an easy question to answer… but you have to realize how much skepticism greeted Boise State before that game was played. You also have to realize that even after pulling off a perfect season in a manner very similar to what UCF did last season, Boise State didn’t get the benefit of the doubt in national debates.

Sound familiar, UCF fans?

Boise State went 12-0 in 2008… and went to the Holiday Bowl, not a BCS bowl.

Boise State went 11-1 in 2010 and 2011, and beat high-quality non-conference opponents each time: Virginia Tech in 2010, Georgia in 2011. BSU was sent to the Maaco (now Las Vegas) Bowl in late December in front of 35,000 fans, not the Sugar, Orange or Fiesta Bowls.

You could certainly argue that Boise State needed to beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl to pave the way for the UCFs and Western Michigans and Houstons in college football.

Boise State’s legend was formed in the Fiesta Bowl, so it is fitting that UCF’s origin story — The Legend Of The Knights Of The Gridiron — was also written in Glendale.

As was the case with Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, UCF was not expected to come close to the Big 12 champion in the January 2014 Fiesta Bowl.

Baylor, coached by Art Briles, had a loaded offense which shoved Oklahoma aside in the Big 12. Baylor, a program which had done virtually nothing for roughly a quarter of a century from the mid-1980s through the end of the 2000s, was built from scratch by Briles with remarkable results.

Say what you want about Briles as a man — he is disgraced, and rightly so, for his handling of Baylor football as an overseer and custodian — but as a tactician and a teacher of quarterbacks, he became one of the best in his profession. Baylor came alive with Robert Griffin III’s Heisman Trophy season in 2011. The Bears then completed their own outhouse-to-penthouse story, something UCF could relate to. Baylor was a 16.5-point favorite against UCF. The Bears didn’t carry a tradition-soaked name the way Oklahoma did against Boise State, but the expectation of a blowout remained — that was consistent with the buildup to the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, seven years earlier.

UCF, like Boise State, had other ideas.

Unlike Boise State, UCF wouldn’t need last-play magic to claim its big moment.

Blake Bortles has suffered through a miserable season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he did soar in last season’s NFL playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots. The man has a sense of the occasion, and that sense was first apparent in UCF’s 2013 season, which was catapulted to prominence by a prime-time win at Louisville against another star quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Bortles found a way to make winning plays that night, and against Baylor, it wasn’t any different.

Bortles wasn’t perfect against Baylor, but like all great collegiate quarterbacks, his great plays were more numerous — and significant — than his mistakes. Bortles threw for just over 300 yards. Storm Johnson dominated on the ground, as the Knights rushed for just over 250 yards. They piled up 556 yards.

Remember when the Tampa Bay Bucs collected 501 yards yet somehow scored only three points against the Washington Redskins? Yards can mean empty calories and hold no value at all.

UCF translated its yards into points. (Pay attention, Bucs.) The Knights responded to every Baylor rally until Baylor couldn’t keep up any longer. Scoring at least 14 points in three quarters and never being denied a touchdown in any of the four quarters, UCF sped away from Baylor.

The final tally was 52-42… but that made the game seem CLOSER than it was, not more lopsided. This was not a 10-point win which felt like a three-point win. It was a 52-35 game with 4:30 left before Baylor got a window-dressing touchdown in the final moments.

UCF thunderously kicked Baylor’s butt.

The Knights had arrived in full measure, in the desert of Arizona. They, like Boise State, went to the Fiesta Bowl in pursuit of the statement which declared for all the world that if you give the little guy a chance in college football, he can compete. This is why UCF and its brethren in the Group of Five clamor for a shot at the College Football Playoff. The sport won’t give UCF that chance, but each new win in a prestigious bowl advances that cause for the future.

UCF, like Boise State, advanced the cause of the little guy nearly five years ago. Now, on January 1, 2019, The Legend Of The Knights Of The Gridiron can grow to an even greater height.

Don’t you just love it when a great legend returns to the scene of its birth? That is the case for UCF, as it prepares to return to Arizona to tangle with LSU for another New Year’s date with destiny.

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.

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