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UCF in Arizona looking for another “Fiesta”

Matt Zemek

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The UCF Knights really did land in the perfect bowl game from a thematically-oriented vantage point. The Rose Bowl speaks of romance and the Sugar Bowl hints at sweetness, but a festive party — a Fiesta — is the best way for UCF to treat its upcoming “New Year’s Six” bowl game against the LSU Tigers.

A year ago, UCF had something to prove in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Of course, this season’s UCF team has plenty to prove as well, but not on the same scale as the 2017 team in Atlanta against another SEC West assemblage of Tigers. That UCF team had McKenzie Milton under center. The best iteration of the Knights took the field against Auburn. UCF had attained New Year’s Day bowl glory in the past, but that 2014 Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor was the final edition of the Bowl Championship Series in a distinctly different environment.

The 2017 UCF team had very little to do with the 2013 Knights The New Year’s Six bowl system places more pressure on a team in UCF’s position because — unlike the BCS bowls — the NY6 recognizes a Group of Five champion, a champion not just of one conference, but of the whole range of smaller-conference teams. UCF carried that banner into the Auburn game, trying to replicate Boise State’s (2014) and Houston’s (2015) wins in the new bowl framework.

Since the Knights succeeded against Auburn, and since Milton is unable to play in this NY6 game against LSU, UCF doesn’t face the same level of pressure to perform… or at the very least, the Knights should allow themselves to not be burdened by outside expectations.

Everyone is aware of the UCF-Florida scheduling controversy. Some national commentators understand UCF’s position and realize that accepting a 2-for-1 — on Florida’s terms — doesn’t serve UCF’s best interests.

Boise State, the program which blazed a trail for the little guys in college football, set the example of playing one-shot neutral-site games (normally closer to the opponent’s home base, which represented a concession in itself). Group of Five teams can’t expect to be elite for three straight seasons — there is too much roster and coaching turnover to expect that as a general rule. Therefore, a three-year series with two games on the road does not help UCF’s long-term interests. The one-shot neutral-site game offers a much more managed and contained form of risk in exchange for the opportunity to make it big.

Some people realize this, but a lot of national commentators have unsurprisingly insisted that UCF submit to what Florida and other top-tier schools want. This national drumbeat could very easily feed the perception that UCF simply MUST beat LSU to prove it is worthy of being considered in future playoff debates. UCF could — if it buys into this line of thought — apply a lot of pressure to this game in Arizona. It could sweat bullets and lose sleep over the idea that a decisive loss to LSU would undo the work of this season and the past two years. UCF could look at the Florida scheduling kerfuffle and worry that this game against LSU could take away a large part of what the Knights have achieved.

That is exactly what UCF must not do.

Other people and outside forces certainly have an influence on the way we think and react… but the key nuance in understanding human thought and emotion is that the influence of outside forces exists because we, as individuals or groups, ALLOW those outside forces to matter.

We might THINK we need to let other voices tell us what to do. We might PERCEIVE the need to assign significance or value to what other people are saying in a national spotlight (or in a private room). However, any good therapist, or priest, or spiritual adviser will tell you the following: Other people or forces have power over you ONLY if you allow them to have that power. You don’t have to give weight or value to those other voices. You can allow other people to say what they want, but you don’t have to put any stock in it.

Let’s be even more clear about this: UCF doesn’t need to block out the noise from the naysayers, those who will insist the Knights HAVE to beat LSU to justify everything they have accomplished. The notion of blocking out something conjures up the image of a person putting his fingers in his or her ears and saying, “LA LA LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

No, that’s not what UCF — or any person who is harassed by an outsider — needs to do. UCF doesn’t need to acquire a defensive posture, as though it has to try to not hear what others are saying. When a person acquires a defensive posture and actively tries to block out what others say, it suggests that hearing the words might have an effect.

The person or group who is truly comfortable doesn’t need to plug one’s ears or avoid hearing the wrong mantra. That person or group can simply allow the other person to yammer away and spout the words of a false prophet… and not give those words any value. That’s how one TRULY ignores outside influences: not by covering eyes or ears or projecting a subconscious fear that words will trigger a subtle change in mindset, but by allowing the outsiders to talk as long as they want, without any effect.

If I let the outsiders — the people who want me to feel scared or worried or less confident — talk to me for two hours, and then smile to them and tell them their words have no power over me, I make a much stronger declaration of comfort in my own skin than if I argue with them or try to cover my ears.

UCF has heard, over and over again, how much it has to act differently in order to justify its standing in the college football world. Those voices telling UCF how to carry itself will not cease to exist regardless of what happens in the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights don’t need to run away from those voices. All they need to do is smile, enjoy the fact that they are playing in a big bowl game, savor all they have accomplished, and have fun — a Fiesta — in Arizona against Ed Orgeron and Company.

I wrote before the AAC Championship Game against Memphis that UCF was playing for a special piece of history, the ability to own consecutive perfect regular seasons. That is very rare in college football history. That game contained massive pressure, since a loss would have relegated UCF to a second-tier bowl game and denied this team a New Year’s Six stage. That was a game UCF had to win. That was a game in which UCF needed to refute the critics and not give them the chance to laugh the Knights off the stage. That was the game which, fairly or not, the Knights had to win in order to ensure that their enormous achievements would be honored and seen for what they were.

UCF passed that test. UCF withstood the pressure. It handled the heat. Back-to-back perfect regular seasons, conference titles, and Group of Five championships sealed with NY6 bowl appearances have given this program more than it ever could have hoped for. I told UCF fans to not worry about the College Football Playoff snub — it is widely known that this system is stacked against teams in UCF’s position. That’s not fair. That’s not right… but it’s reality. The proper response to such a reality is not necessarily to ignore it, but a proper response to the College Football Playoff for UCF is to focus on what it CAN control: its own on-field results. They have been — as a matter of wins and losses — PERFECT results over the past 25 games.

Very simply, then, if UCF is worried about public perception and concerned about how the outside world views the Knights, this team will feel a lot of pressure in Glendale against LSU, which probably won’t lead to a good performance. On the other hand, this bowl game will be a true Fiesta for UCF if the Knights revel in the opportunity to play with house money and — sans Milton in Arizona — let it fly with LSU, freed from the burden of expectations.

Beating the teams you are supposed to beat might seem simple, but ask any UCF player or coach over the past two seasons: It requires enormous mental strength to continuously stay focused and not fall off the high wire even once. Going 12-0 is one of the hardest tasks in sports. UCF has pulled it off two straight years.

The Knights need to very consciously reward themselves in Arizona. They need to treat themselves to a Fiesta and throw a party in the specific sense that they need to treat this game as an occasion to have a lot of fun. If this game is a task, a chore, a burden, a moment in which everything could be lost, UCF will succumb to those outside voices. The Knights will show that they are sensitive to what other people — those with no desire to see the Knights succeed — think of this program’s achievements. UCF can’t let those voices prevail.

UCF might not beat LSU — the Tigers have some amazing defensive players on their team — but the Knights owe it to themselves to enjoy this experience. Yes, that enjoyment is much more likely to lead to a good showing against LSU. That is obviously part of the point here. However, enjoyment of a Fiesta in the Southwestern United States is even more important because UCF needs to enjoy its accomplishments on its own terms, and not allow national pundits to define how the Knights perceive themselves.

That aspect of UCF’s fight with one SEC program (Florida) should not spill into how the Knights carry themselves against another SEC program on New Year’s Day in the desert.

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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