The last 40 years have been a wild ride for UCF. In that span, a program that played its first game at the Division III level in a cow pasture has risen to one of the most successful and well-known teams in college football.
So, as the Knights gear up for the 2019 season, we went all the way back to 1979, examined results, big games and final records from each season, and ranked the first 40 years of UCF football.
To be clear, this ranking is not meant to determine who would beat whom or to power rank the various teams. Obviously, any UCF team from the most recent 10 years would beat any squad from the first 10. By “worst season” to “best season,” this list takes into account fan expectations at the time, postseason achievements, and overall standing in college football.
So, yes, most FBS seasons are better than most FCS seasons. But even if a 3-9 FBS team would beat a 10-4 FCS team, it doesn’t mean that was a better season for UCF. Make sense? Good. Still confused? Well whatever, I tried.
40: 2015 season (0-12, FBS level)
39: 2004 season (0-11, FBS level)
38: 1982 season (0-10, Division II level)
37: 1984 season (2-9, Division II level)
36: 1980 season (4-4-1, Division III level)
Explanation: If you didn’t know which season was going to be last then, man, I really don’t even know what to say to you. Sorting out UCF’s three winless years was obviously not a ton of fun, but there’s a pretty clear hierarchy. The 1982 season is the best of the bunch because it was the least damaging. The Knights were just a couple years into existence, playing their first year at D-2 and there were still no real stakes for a fledgling program.
The 2004 winless season was a bit more devastating. UCF was a few years removed from a 9-2 campaign and had steadily declined since then. But, there were other factors at play. First off, that decline meant that this season wasn’t exactly out of the blue. And first-year coach George O’Leary was in the process of resetting the program.
Then, there’s 2015. After an excellent five-year stretch where the Knights had gone 47-19, won a Fiesta Bowl, taken home three conference championships and finished ranked three times… the team disintegrated into nothing.
It’s really not an overstatement to call this one of the most shocking collapses in college football history. So, without a doubt, this ranks as the worst UCF season ever.
35: 1985 season (4-7, Division II level)
34: 1983 season (5-6, Division II level)
33: 1986 season (6-5, Division II level)
32: 2003 season (3-9, FBS level)
31: 1988 season (6-5, Division II level)
Explanation: Except for a couple of solid years (which are significantly higher on this list) the 1980s weren’t a very prolific time for UCF. The Knights were still getting their feet under them as a program and spent most of that decade as a middling D-2 independent. So, it’s not surprising that, of the bottom 10 teams, seven come from that timespan.
In case you’re wondering why 1988 got the edge in this group, it’s because that year was deceptively successful. The Knights started 6-1 before falling off hard, and scored a win against No. 1-ranked Troy State, which was a massive accomplishment at the time.
That game also included 31,000 UCF fans who were so obnoxiously loud, the refs had to stop play seven different times. Anyone want to try the whole “UCF had no fans until the Peach Bowl” thing again?
According to the Orlando Sentinel at the time, the $250,000 in ticket sales from that game also singlehandedly lifted the program out of debt, which had run up a deficit of $1 million just a few years prior.
30: 2006 season (4-8, FBS level)
29: 2008 season (4-8, FBS level)
28: 1979 season (6-2, Division III level)
27: 1991 season (6-5, FCS level)
26: 1989 season (7-3, Division II level)
Explanation: We’ve come to the part of the list where I made a judgement call that you can decide whether or not is fair. We’ve got a group here of some teams with pretty abysmal records that finished higher than the previous 10 teams, that had some slightly less abysmal records.
The call I made here is that a bad season at the FBS level is still more impressive than a “meh” season at the D-2 or D-3 level. My reasoning is that, even if there were fewer wins, those wins still came against much more recognized teams. And they came in front of a much larger fan base and were actually even televised sometimes.
You can make a case that some of those 80’s D-2 squads got ripped off, but give me a 4-8 season in the Bounce House against Miami, USF and Boston College over a 6-5 season in the Citrus Bowl against Valdosta State, Wofford and Samford.
The winner of this group is the 1989 squad, which fell short of the D-2 playoffs, but still took down three FCS opponents and finished 6-1 at home. And of course, we’ve got the team’s first ever season at 28th. Did it get bumped up for nostalgia reasons? Yes. Yes it did.
25: 1995 season (6-5, FCS level)
24: 1992 season (6-4, FCS level)
23: 2001 season (6-5, FBS level)
22: 1999 season (4-7, FBS level)
21: 2011 season (5-7, FBS level)
Explanation: We’ve pretty much worked our way through the “UCF had a winning record, but just barely!” seasons, so that’s good. But it’s actually two losing years that top out in this group. No, it makes sense. Seriously.
Yes, 1999 was a 4-7 year, which is an unimpressive record at pretty much any level. But it did start with four straight ranked opponents, one of which UCF came excruciatingly close to beating. The Knights lost to No. 11 Georgia in Athens by just a single point.
According to the Orlando Sentinel at the time, the loss was in large part due to an inexplicable penalty where offensive pass interference was called on UCF, moving the team out of field goal range in the closing seconds to deny them a win. Coming within a bad penalty of beating a Top 25 SEC team three years into playing at the FBS level deserves a boost as far as I’m concerned.
And then there’s 2011, which will always look so much worse than it actually was. UCF went just 5-7, but did manage to notch a win against a Power Five team in Boston College. And those seven losses? Six of them came by a touchdown or less. Add in that that year was sandwiched between 11-3 and 10-4 campaigns, and we know the 2011 Knights were a lot more talented than that final record indicated.
20: 1989 season (7-3, FCS level)
19: 1996 season (5-6, FBS level)
18: 1994 season (7-4, FCS level)
17: 1987 season (9-4, Division II Semi Finals)
16: 2002 season (7-5, FBS level)
Explanation: I went back and forth a lot on whether a D-2 playoff team is a better year than a seven-win FBS team. This might be an example of me ripping off the older team again, but here’s what it came down to for me.
The biggest thing is that the 1987 squad only won two more games than the 2002 one. And it did that two whole levels of football below FBS. Not to mention that seven wins would typically be enough for a bowl, but it just didn’t work out that way for the 2002 guys.
So, despite the greater postseason success of 1987, I’ve got to hand it to the UCF squad that posted a winning record while playing in a conference for the first time ever and lost to a ranked Penn State by just three points. I’m willing to bet fans got more out of that season.
15: 2000 season (7-4, FBS level)
14: 1997 season (5-6, FBS level)
13: 1993 season (9-4, FCS Playoffs, First Round)
12: 1990 season (10-4, FCS Playoffs, Semi Finals)
11: 2016 season (6-7, Cure Bowl loss)
Explanation: The Knights’ FCS successes finally get represented, with a pair of postseason appearances in a four-year span coming in at 13th and 12th. Both of those teams finished ranked and set the stage for an imminent move to the highest level of college football.
The 1997 team gets a boost too for how the year started. UCF played four Power Five teams in its first five games, and came surprisingly close to beating three of them. Even though the Knights didn’t win, those results helped their perception as a program.
But the winner of this group goes to a team that didn’t wrack up a ton of wins, but certainly had a larger impact on the fans and UCF history.
There was no reason for the 2016 Knights to be good. They were coming off the worst season in program history and, even with new coach Scott Frost, a bowl bid felt about as attainable as flying to the moon.
But any fans who had illusions that UCF’s success was over were in for a wakeup call, as the resurgent Knights started 6-4 and made it back to a bowl right away. They may not have the talent of some other teams on this list, but it’s not an overstatement to say they saved the fan base. Another bad year following 0-12 could have been catastrophic.
10: 1998 season (9-2, FBS level)
9: 2009 season (8-5, St. Pete Bowl loss)
8: 2005 season (8-5, Conference USA loss, Hawaii Bowl loss)
7: 2014 season (9-4, AAC Champions, St. Pete Bowl loss)
6: 2012 season (10-4, Conference USA loss, St. Pete Bowl Champions)
Explanation: As we move into the Top 10, all that’s left is success. There are plenty of good seasons to analyze here, but No. 10 has always been an interesting hypothetical to me. Led by Daunte Culpepper, the Knights went 9-2.
But their independent status just barely kept them from getting into a bowl. You can’t help but wonder how different UCFhistory plays out if the team wins its first bowl 12 years earlier and notches a 10-win campaign in just its second FBS season. The only thing for certain is that 1998 would be a lot higher on this list.
But the winner of this group is 2012, a team that would have more than likely finished ranked if not for an overtime loss to Tulsa in the conference championship game, but still got to 10 wins and continued what even today remains the most consistent five-year stretch in UCF history.
(Also, 2014 deserves to get knocked down at least 10 to 15 spots due to the first half of the Penn State game alone. Not to mention a random loss to freaking UConn. But I eventually decided it wasn’t worth sifting through the eventual tweets of “why is a 9-4 AAC team ranked behind a 3-9 MAC team on this list?”)
5: 2007 season (10-4, Conference USA Champions, Liberty Bowl loss)
4: 2010 season (11-3, Conference USA Champions, Liberty Bowl Champions, No. 21 Final Ranking)
3: 2018 season (12-1, AAC Champions, Fiesta Bowl loss, No. 11 Final Ranking)
2: 2013 season (12-1, AAC Champions, Fiesta Bowl Champions, No. 10 Final Ranking)
1: 2017 season (13-0, AAC Champions, Peach Bowl Champions, No. 6 Final Ranking)
Explanation: It says so much about UCF that the program’s top five seasons have all come in the last 12 years. This is a team that has consistently found ways to top itself over and over again. There are so many milestones that deserve a mention for this group.
The 2007 season saw the Bounce House open and UCF capture its first conference championship. In the 2010 season, the Knights won their first bowl and finished ranked for the first time in school history. In 2018, UCF saw the completion of a 25-game win streak, another conference championship, another New Year’s Six appearance and a College GameDay visit to campus. And 2013, the year when Blake Bortles elevated the program to heights it had never dreamed of, the Knights finally became players on the national stage.
But none of these years can top 2017. A year where everything, truly everything, played out perfectly for the Knights. Just two seasons after going winless, McKenzie Milton, Shaquem Griffin and so many others led the team to an undefeated dream season that changed everything for the program overnight.
Regardless of what happens this season, or even the season after, the Knights are now a national brand. They’ve made themselves a permanent factor in the college football world, as Boise State did a decade ago. The sky is the limit now, as AP rankings and 10-win seasons will more than likely become commonplace. And it all kicked off with the 2017 season.
But it didn’t start there. It didn’t start when the Knights ran onto the Peach Bowl field, or when Scott Frost picked UCF. It didn’t start when O’Leary came to Orlando or President John C. Hitt moved the team to FBS.
It started 40 years ago in a cow pasture when a Division III team stepped onto the field.