The UCF Knights are everyone’s target after two unbeaten regular seasons and two appearances in prestigious “New Year’s Six” bowl games.
Moreover, “everyone” doesn’t just refer to opposing teams. The national media took note of the scheduling confrontation between UCF and the University of Florida last year. UCF has become the magnet for criticism among smaller schools, akin to Boise State a decade ago.
It is said that America loves an underdog, but college football is an exception. Sure, there is plenty of Alabama and Clemson fatigue in the country, but underdogs acquire targets in this sport because they don’t play SEC or Big Ten schedules.
UCF clamoring for national championship status – in the eyes of many college football fans – represents delusional thinking or outsized talk, if not both. UCF asking for College Football Playoff legitimacy is viewed in a similar fashion.
Every gameday opponent wants to beat UCF. Many fans and much of the media would like to see UCF go down.
If the Knights perceive that everyone is out to get them, it’s not paranoia. It is merely the truth.
Pardon UCF fans if they claim that the outside world is ganging up on their football program. They aren’t wrong.
It is quite fitting, then, that as the Knights – who have already lost at Pittsburgh this year – make a return trip to the Rust Belt to face the Cincinnati Bearcats on Friday night, they are playing three opponents, not merely one.
“Ganging up” is supremely appropriate in framing the nature of the battle for the Knights in Week 6.
The primary opponent for UCF is Cincinnati. This matchup was an ESPN/ABC Saturday night primetime special last year. UCF and Cincy received major-league treatment, and the Knights looked the part of a team which was ready to follow its 2017 unbeaten season with another unblemished regular season in 2018.
This year’s game won’t attract the same national buzz – mostly because UCF has lost a game, partly because there will be four baseball playoff games on Friday – but it is still the game which is likely to decide the AAC East Division championship.
Temple is the only other team in the AAC East with a reasonable chance of causing trouble, but as the season has evolved, it is becoming clearer that Temple is merely a decent team. Its victories over Maryland and Georgia Tech look less impressive in context, given what has happened to those two teams.
It is almost certain that when the smoke clears, UCF and UC will stand at the top of the AAC East. Friday’s game is enormous for that reason alone.
Yet, the Bearcats are hardly the only foe UCF must deal with on Friday. The Knights can look in the mirror to identify a second opponent in Ohio.
It has to be said that UCF – for all the mistakes it made against Pittsburgh – might have left the Steel City with an unbeaten record had it not committed an offside penalty on fourth down on Pitt’s final (winning) drive. UCF put itself in position to lose all day long, but it still had the ability to close the door on the kind of win – a classic Harry Houdini escape – which leads to unbeaten regular seasons.
That final lapse on fourth down – which had nothing to do with Pittsburgh’s quality or tenacity – was UCF’s gift-wrapped donation to an opponent, the kind of play we simply haven’t seen the past two-plus seasons.
As much as Pitt deserved the win and earned the praise it received, UCF had the Panthers on the ropes and handed them a lifeline.
UCF can’t be its worst enemy this Friday. Avoiding self-sabotage is a cornerstone element of a winning performance, not a minor peripheral detail.
The third opponent UCF faces is not just Cincinnati, and not just the Knights themselves. It is a specific emotion which is part of the larger context of this clash: desperation.
This game is Cincinnati’s season. That is not a hyperbolic statement.
Last year’s UC team won 11 games (including a bowl), but did not get a prime postseason destination. Coach Luke Fickell produced a tremendous year, but he didn’t even have a division title to show for it. UCF stood in his way.
UCF-Cincinnati is not a storied college football rivalry the way Ohio State-Michigan is. Yet, the specific dynamic in which one team stands in the other’s way – not just for a division title, but also conference championships and big bowl bids, everything a program covets – clearly applies to this game.
Cincinnati (which already lost to Ohio State in 2019) could win every remaining game on its schedule. Yet, if it doesn’t beat UCF, the Bearcats could go 11-2 for the second straight season and no one would pay much attention.
Fickell might be headed for a Power 5 conference job before too long. He has certainly improved his standing in the coaching marketplace. Yet, if he doesn’t beat UCF, athletic directors and other people in this business will wonder if he really has The Right Stuff.
Cincinnati’s players and coaches – everyone associated with the Bearcat program – will enter Friday night’s game knowing this moment will define their season more than any other.
Cincinnati. Their own selves. The desperation of the moment.
UCF – the team everyone likes to gang up on in the 2019 college football season – plays three opponents Friday night, not merely one.
The Knights will need to display their best fighting qualities when they confront their latest moment of truth on the gridiron.
UCF trying to regain form part of our college primer
The theme for week 8 is redemption for some teams like: Florida State, Florida, and UCF, while South Florida and Miami will look for some continued success.
The Gators are coming off of their first loss of the season even though they played one of their best games of the season. With LSU now behind them, the time now is to focus on South Carolina. The Gamecocks are coming off one of their best wins since the Steve Spurrier era defeating Georgia last week. The Gators will look to avoid the same fate this week.
Ryan Hilinski will start for USC after he was knocked out with a knee injury last week. Coming off his best performance of the season minus the crucial interception Kyle Trask will need to do it again. The South Carolina offense did just enough last week to get the win this time around the Gators offense should put up more of a challenge than the Bulldogs did. If the Gators can get consistent offense like they did last week, they should be heading into the Cocktail Party with a win.
The Seminoles are coming off a gruesome loss to Clemson. After back to back wins, some thought the Noles were turning things around and might compete with the Tigers for a little bit. Well, those people were wrong as the Noles got rolled by the score of 45-14. Now the Noles will prepare to take on an upstart Wake Forrest team coming off their first loss of the season.
Wake could be without star QB Jamie Newman and will turn to Sam Hartman. Meanwhile, the Noles don’t even know who will be under center for their team when the ball is kicked off at 7:30. The Noles do have Cam Akers, though, and the Decans have had their fair share of issues stopping opposing running backs. Expect the Noles to feed Akers early and Often.
The Knights are in new waters this year. They have already lost two games this season, and all eyes will be on how they respond. UCF will be back at home for a night Homecoming game against ECU. No better time for the Knights to bounce back than at home where they still haven’t lost at. Expect the whole offense to bounce back, especially QB Dillon Gabriel. Gabriel (above) is still just a freshman, and growing pains are to be expected from the first year QB. Look for him and Gabe Davis to reestablish the reliable connection for another score.
The Hurricanes will look to win their second game in a row when Georgia Tech rolls into town. The Jackets have struggled this season to a 1-5 record, and the Canes are looking to make it 1-6. N’Kosi Perry will get the start for the second consecutive week. With Perry in the Canes seem to be working the ball downfield more and really trying to utilize Jeff Thomas more.
The duo will get a few chances to strike against tech in this contest. DeeJay Dallas has been held under 100 yards in three straight games, but he has an excellent opportunity to break that spell as well.
The South Florida Bulls will head up to the Naval Academy and try to win their second in a row. After an awful start to the season, USF is still playing catch up and trying to at least hit the six-win mark. With the schedule getting tougher and tougher, it will be hard.
The Navy is led by its triple-option stack that is spearheaded by Malcolm Perry. Perry has been a force this season on the ground as expected, but he has shown his arm off a few times this season as well.
For USF to win this game, though, they will need more from the passing game and Jordan McCloud. If he can generate some offense other than Jordan Cronkrite running in a game where possessions will be valuable, the Bulls have a chance.
Zemek- “UCF magic”only over for 2019
I said Saturday morning after the loss to Cincinnati that there was a need to address both the short-term and long-term situations facing the UCF Knights. Saturday morning was the immediate autopsy of a game – and season – which got knocked off track.
This column is meant to address the much bigger picture surrounding UCF.
One sentiment voiced Friday night was that UCF’s run is over. UCF is no longer “a thing.” UCF is no longer relevant.
If any of those commentators or college football fans were talking about 2019 alone, they are correct. UCF has been damaged too greatly and has too flawed a team to realistically stay in the Group of Five “New Year’s Six” bowl chase. Boise State would have to lose twice. Cincinnati would have to lose twice. Memphis would have to lose twice… and even then, UCF wouldn’t be in the clear.
The Knights’ chances aren’t TECHNICALLY finished, but they literally need every possible break – not most, but all – to fall their way over the next two months. That isn’t realistic. The 2019 campaign has been thwarted, even if the AAC championship isn’t entirely out of reach.
If you want to say the UCF hype and magic are over this year, fine. I can certainly accept that.
If you are referring to any period of time beyond 2019, get lost.
This program isn’t going anywhere.
Can we stop for a moment and realize how much horrendous luck the Knights have endured? McKenzie Milton got hurt. Darriel Mack got hurt. UCF’s defense – as I noted Saturday morning – played more than well enough to beat Cincinnati on the road. The Knights’ defense doesn’t need to be spectacular; it needs to be solid, relative to what Josh Heupel expects from his offense.
In 2017 and 2018, UCF’s defensive effort at Cincinnati would easily have been strong enough to win, and win decisively. In 2019? Dillon Gabriel and his receivers, AND his offensive line, were not good enough in concert with each other. They all suffered their share of failures.
If one person or unit did well, the other units didn’t finish the play. With Milton or Mack in there, the odds of such a red-zone disaster would have decreased sharply.
Now imagine a 2020 season without quarterback injuries. All the speed Scott Frost and Josh Heupel have recruited into the program will still be there. UCF has a solid foundation. This program isn’t going anywhere… which leads us to the program which blazed a trail for UCF (and yet doesn’t want UCF to succeed, for obvious reasons).
Before there was UCF, there was Boise State.
The Broncos did what UCF did, only better. (This is not a negative commentary on UCF, just to make sure no one gets the wrong idea.) Boise State played elite non-conference opponents early in the season and defeated them. The Broncos put themselves in position to contend for the national title.
Remember: Boise State went unbeaten in 2009 and defeated a higher-ranked opponent – TCU – in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl than the opponent UCF defeated when the Knights handled Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl.
The Broncos also would have played in the 2011 Rose Bowl had their kicker not missed a chip shot at Nevada on the Friday after Thanksgiving. TCU took the spot Boise State relinquished.
UCF rose to a very great height in 2017, but Boise State rose higher in 2009.
That run for the Broncos 10 years ago was not the product of uninterrupted dominance.
In 2007, Boise State lost three times, once by 12 points to WAC champion Hawaii and once to East Carolina in a bowl game.
If people thought Boise State was “over” – not just in that particular year, but for the long haul – they were sadly mistaken.
The Broncos delivered unbeaten regular seasons in 2008 and 2009. They didn’t lose more than one game in the next four seasons after their 2007 stumble.
Will UCF be as dominant as that? No one knows. Just realize that UCF being “over” is a 2019-specific thing, not a long-term reality.
The Knights have stockpiled too much talent to be wished off the stage by college football elitists.
UCF will be back. Mark it down… but not this year.
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