Commentary: What’s next for UCF Knights? Some fans undeterred by Fiesta Bowl loss

University of Central Florida's Darriel Mack Jr. (#8) is sacked by the Louisiana State University defense during the 2019 Fiesta Bowl game on Tuesday, Jan. 1 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. The Tigers handed the Knights their first loss following a 25-game win streak in their 40-32 victory. [Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia]

By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

With the New Year’s Six bowl games behind us, one question for the 2018-19 college football season remains — who will emerge victorious in Monday’s match-up between perennial powerhouses No. 2 Clemson and No. 1 Alabama?

But while we await this inevitable clash of titans, some (myself including) continue to question the college football playoff system that produced it.

We ask, should the playoffs be expanded to include more teams and create a “true” playoff system (like the NFL), which would give underdogs and rising stars more opportunities to compete on the national stage?

Asked this very question following Tuesday’s Fiesta Bowl dust-up between No. 8 Central Florida and No. 11 LSU, neither coach was willing to cross or even toe the party line.

Asked if he believed UCF deserved more consideration for the national championship, LSU Head Coach Ed Orgeron — who led his Tigers to a 40-32 over the Orlando upstarts — refused to weigh in.

“That’s not for me to decide. I worry about my team and what we do, so I have no comment on that,” Orgeron said the during post-game press conference at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

UCF Head Coach Josh Heupel, whose Knights won 25 games in a row before their Tuesday loss — including a 34-27 win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl last year — also deferred.

“The playoff, that’s way out of my control. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it,” Heupel said. “I try to get our kids to focus on the daily tasks, the things that they can control.”

But while the coaches keep their cards close, fans and pundits around the country continue to question the current system; and UCF is the poster child for those arguing for playoff expansion.

For me, UCF provides an interesting case study into the Proverbial thought question: is it better to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?

Admittedly, I was never a particular fan of UCF football, though I do still consider them something of a hometown team, since I grew up in the Orlando area.

When I first moved to the Sunshine State in 1978, the home of the Knights of Pegasus (formerly known as Florida Technical University) had only itself moved into the bigger pond to take on the moniker University of Central Florida.

Just a year later in 1979, UCF fielded its first varsity team, joining the NCAA Division III along with such “famed” football franchises as the Ithaca Bombers and the Wittenberg Tigers.

Throughout the 80s and 90s in Florida, college football was totally dominated by “real” programs, like Florida State, the University of Florida and the University of Miami.

These many years later, witnessing the emergence of UCF has been equal parts surprising and impressive.

It’s like I picked up a paper here to read the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes are slotted into a major bowl game. Huh? Really?

So, call me short-sighted and light my Virginia Slim, because UCF has come a long way since the 80s, baby!

A little history

By the time I entered high school, UCF had already moved into Division II. When I moved to Phoenix in 1990, UCF moved up to Division I-AA.

I did not pay attention to those developments.

But when I heard reports the program was moving into Division I-A in 1993, I recall mocking the decision: why on Earth would they want to compete with the likes of FSU, UF and Miami? How could they?

But the Knights have since continued to surprise me (and pretty much everyone else) with their consistent dominance in ever-increasingly large ponds.

In 1990, UCF became the first team to qualify for the playoffs in its first year in the division — they went to the playoffs in Division I-A again in 1993.

In just their first year in Conference USA, UCF won its first division championship in 2005 and got its first bowl game invite.

They took a second division championship and topped their conference for the first time in 2007, only to notch their first win against a ranked opponent in 2009.

In 2010, UCF earned its first-ever top-25 college football ranking and defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 10-6 in the Liberty Bowl.

It was the fourth bowl game appearance under Head Coach George O’Leary and the team’s first bowl game win.

With a 12-1 record in the 2013-14 season, No. 15-ranked UCF went undefeated in conference play to earn a BCS berth.

In their first-ever major bowl game, UCF then beat the No. 6 Baylor Bears in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the BCS era.

Following their winless 2015 season, a resilient UCF emerged dominant again under Head Coach Scott Frost, igniting the 25-game winning streak which ended with this week’s loss against LSU.

What future?

Clearly, not only has UCF succeeded in bigger ponds — the Knights have proven time and again they are a big fish, regardless of habitat.

But could we take them seriously as continued contenders should they move up to one of the Power Five conferences?

A close friend of mine who still lives in Orlando, like many who count themselves among the UCF Nation, certainly believes so.

Stephen Boelzner grew up only miles from the UCF campus, where he marched three seasons with the UCF Knights Marching Band on his way to a theater arts degree.

As an alum, he has followed his team’s rise closely over the intervening decades.

“I was glad to see that they at least kept it close,” Mr. Boelzner said. “I do think they should go to a tougher conference. The only way they will get those higher caliber players is by moving up to another conference.”

While he concedes opponents like LSU and others in the Power Five pose a great challenge, he says the challenge is overdue and worth the potential payoff.

“Yes, we will have to sacrifice some wins in the early stages, but in the long run I think that’s the only way we will ever get into any kind of national championship discussion,” Mr. Boelzner said.

Ascension to the big league comes with more than prestige — it could mean much bigger bucks for UCF, both the university and its sports programs.

Details of this season’s take won’t come out until later in the spring, but the Orlando Sentinel last year reported on the previous season’s revenues following an extensive investigation.

For the 2016-17 fiscal year, the American Athletic Conference reported $74.5 million in revenue.

During that same period, earnings for the Power Five conferences ranged from $371 million up to $650 million for an average of $495.8 million.

Even if cast into one of the much-more highly competitive conferences (such as the ten-team Big 12 conference), a sevenfold pay increase would be well-spent on better facilities, marketing, and scouting and recruiting efforts to compete for the best players, Mr. Boelzner suggested.

Perhaps UCF may flounder in future match-ups against teams like Alabama or Clemson — but the Orlando team has proven again and again, it has the winning spirit.

And their loyal fans among the myriad shoals of UCF Nation will continue to root for that bigger pond.

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