UCF’s 34-30 loss to Navy on Saturday may have been one of the most shocking results in the last five years of Knights football. Most of the fanbase thought this program had moved beyond the days of stunning losses to bad opponents.
So, how did we get here? How did UCF go from three straight Top 25 seasons to losing to a winless team in just a couple years? Let’s break down the factors that led to the Knights’ current predicament.
Let’s get the short term and obvious issue out of the way early: UCF essentially limped into its game against Navy. The big story of the season has been star quarterback Dillon Gabriel’s loss to a broken collarbone, but he was far from the only Knight missing Saturday.
Isaiah Bowser, a key part of UCF’s early success who was heavily limited against Louisville, didn’t play. Top receiver Jaylon Robinson was also out. Matt Lee managed to return from injury after getting hurt early against Bethune-Cookman. And the defense was truly decimated, having to go without starters Ricky Barber, Tatum Bethune and Corey Thornton, as well as an in-game injury to Cam Goode.
The fan base is largely in apocalypse mode right now, but winning any game without your quarterback, top running back, top receiver and a third of your starting defense would be a challenge. The issue is that great teams have the depth to counteract injuries. It was a concern throughout the offseason and it’s essentially confirmed now: UCF does not have the depth to function when injuries pile up.
Which brings us to our next topic…
We’re not going to get into stars and class rankings here since those are largely subjective and misleading stats, but UCF simply didn’t find the right guys under Josh Heupel’s staff to maintain the team’s level of success.
Scott Frost had just two recruiting classes at UCF but managed to uncover a litany of hidden and underrecruited talent that helped morph the Knights into a Top 25 program within a single season and maintain that status for years. Just look at some of the notable players Frost brought in during his two years as head coach:
- McKenzie Milton
- Gabe Davis
- Richie Grant
- Mike Hughes
- Marlon Williams
- Kalia Davis
- Greg McCrae
- Otis Anderson
- Adrian Killins
- Jordan Johnson
- Cole Schneider
- Samuel Jackson
- Trysten Hill
- Nate Evans
- Brandon Moore
- Antwan Collier
- Dredrick Snelson
- Bentavious Thompson
- Jawon Hamilton
That’s an insane amount of talent from two classes (plus transfers). Frost’s staff simply knew how to identify, recruit and develop overlooked talent. Which is an easier job in Florida than other places.
Heupel’s staff opted for a more national approach in his three classes, recruiting guys from all over the place and Florida seemed to fall by the wayside. His three classes also had more notable misses, with many of UCF’s highest-rated commits never developing into contributors. But there were still some very big wins, like Dillon Gabriel or transfers Tre Nixon and Robinson. Here’s some of the notable talent brought in under Heupel’s tenure:
- Dillon Gabriel
- Tre Nixon
- Jaylon Robinson
- Tay Gowan
- Ryan O’Keefe
- Matt Lee
- Tre’Mon Morris-Brash
- Tatum Bethune
- Cam Goode
- Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste
- Randy Charlton
- Kenny Turnier
- Eriq Gilyard
It’s not a bad list. Many of those players have played, and continue to play, key roles for UCF. But it just simply isn’t on par with what Frost brought in. This is also the first season with almost every contributor from the 2017-18 stretch of success off the roster. That has shown.
Lack of Program Consistency
Speaking of Frost and Heupel, both of their departures have unquestionably played a role in where UCF now finds itself. It’s just hard to consistently be elite when a team has now had four head coaches in seven years. It’s the unfortunate reality of a Group of Five that coaches are always looking to leave (luckily UCF’s days as a G5 are numbered, and Gus Malzahn had expressed his desire to stay long-term even before that news).
But the constant turnover just kills sustained success, especially since UCF has opted for three very different coaches in its last three hires. Just look at the Group of Five programs that have stayed good without drop-offs. Before this season, Boise State had had just two head coaches since 2006. Cincinnati has had dramatic ups and down through various hires until it finally found consistency under Fickell.
The constant coaching turnover was going to catch up to UCF eventually. This year’s team is made up of Frost recruits, Heupel recruits and Malzahn transfers. That’s not a winning formula in the short term.
This was obviously something that every team in the nation dealt with, but UCF was hit especially hard in some ways. The Knights led the nation in COVID-19 opt-outs and many of those players are no longer on the roster, playing a role in the depth issues the team is now facing.
And, perhaps most importantly, while many teams saw the return of super seniors taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility gifted to all players in college football, UCF saw an exodus. The season had been a massive disappointment. Heupel’s status as coach was uncertain. And, frankly, many players simply knew that they could get drafted.
Cincinnati and other conference foes are fielding what on paper may be their deepest teams ever thanks to returning players. Meanwhile, UCF said farewell to Williams, Anderson, McCrae, Grant, Nixon, Gowan, Jacob Harris and Aaron Robinson. If even a few of those guys had chosen to stay put, this is likely a very different year.
This is the topic fans probably don’t want to hear about, but you simply can’t deny that it has played a role: UCF is being held to a standard it cannot meet.
After the 25-game win streak, it started to feel like UCF was never going to lose again. It really felt that way. That belief was only reinforced when Gabriel stepped in for Milton to start 2019 and UCF raced out to a 3-0 start with a blowout win over Stanford. But then reality set in. The Knights are 15-9 since that Stanford win, as talent and coaches have continued to leave the program.
There’s a reason we call them dream seasons. 2017 on repeat was never going to be the standard at UCF. But the Knights should be better than they are now. 10 wins on a regular basis should not be unattainable. Which brings us to our final topic…
Reasons for Hope
No, it’s not over. UCF has not fallen off for good or disappeared from the spotlight forever. Let’s not forget that the Knights at one point won a New Year’s Six Bowl, went 0-12 soon after, then won another within two years.
The first short term reason for hope is that these injuries won’t last forever. Mikey Keene showed remarkable composure and talent for a true freshman starting for the first time on the road. Give him some more weapons in Robinson and Bowser and the offense should not be a concern. The defense is still a major issue, but not like what we saw last weekend. Those guys just need to be healthy.
In the long-term, things are also looking good. UCF is recruiting at a higher level than ever before, and that’s going to pay off (we just have a little more insight now into why there seemed to be such an emphasis on recruiting defense last summer).
Gus Malzahn is the right guy for UCF. He’s respected by players. He can recruit. He can flat out coach. And, most of all, he wants to stay. Some Twitter fans are ready to hop off the Gus Bus, but there simply is no argument to be made against him at this early stage. The few play-calling complaints have objectively been hilarious after what we saw the last few years from Heupel, and there’s simply no amount of coaching that can make up for the team’s current talent issues. Only recruiting can do that, and Malzahn has hit the ground running in that department.
UCF has its coach. It has a great AD and heavy investment from the school. It has a massive fan base, good facilities and fertile recruiting ground. And soon, it will have Power Five status and much more money to play with.
Saturday’s loss was not indicative of the long-term status of the program. Malzahn is just getting started.