To virtually every college football fan, media member and pundit outside of the greater Orlando area, the 2023 season was exactly what it was supposed to be for UCF.
The Knights — brand new to the Power Five — put together a respectable campaign as they made one of the toughest transitions in all of sports.
UCF was the only new team to make it to a bowl, blew out Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma State and was competitive in almost every conference game.
But that wasn’t enough for the fanbase. Accustomed to the Knights’ time in the AAC where blowout wins were the norm and sitting near the top of the conference standings was a given, seeing loss after loss pile up was a major adjustment.
What we’ve learned this week is that the fans weren’t the only ones who found what everyone else considered to be a solid season a failure.
Gus Malzahn did as well.
Changes to the program have been constant and relentless this offseason. UCF managed to land a new star quarterback in KJ Jefferson who was widely believed to be out of the Kingdom’s price range, along with a bevy of other transfers meant to take over starting roles.
Both offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw and defensive coordinator Addison Williams were demoted, with Tim Harris and Ted Roof brought in to replace them.
The wide receivers coach and strength coach were fired. The linebackers coach appears to be gone as well. Malzahn announced that he will be retaking the reins of the offense and helping call plays.
It’s going to be a very, very different team in 2024.
Malzahn has made more than clear — with both his words and his actions — that it’s Big 12 title game or bust for UCF next season.
The Knights are looking to attempt a rapid ascent unlike anything we’ve seen in the sport before.
TCU went 4-8 in its second year in the Big 12 after moving up from the Mountain West. Utah posted a 5-7 record in its sophomore campaign in the Pac 12.
And those programs didn’t have to deal with some of the modern obstacles facing UCF like being outspent and out-recruited with NIL and seeing players consistently poached through the portal.
There’s both a positive and a negative way to look at the lofty goals the Knights have set for themselves and the dramatic steps they’ve taken this offseason to work toward those goals.
And to be honest, I’m still not sure which angle I buy into.
To take the route of the optimist, UCF is being ruthless. And that’s exactly what you have to do to compete in modern College Football.
There is no resting on your laurels. The Power Four is a cut throat level of competition where any program that isn’t constantly innovating and doing everything it can to improve will be inevitably left behind.
Malzahn has had to make hard choices this offseason. Williams was considered a rising star in the sport and spent time with Malzahn at Auburn before coming to UCF. Malzahn had to make the call to demote him after just one year as a coordinator.
Darin Hinshaw is a UCF alum who had much fanfare made of his return to the program as OC. But the offense wasn’t always perfect and Malzahn had to boot him back to primarily being a positions coach.
Coaches at major programs have lost their jobs for being unwilling to make those types of changes that risk injuring the careers and reputations of coworkers they call friends.
But Malzahn saw chances to improve, and he took them.
Throw in a QB like Jefferson, returning stars in RJ Harvey and Kobe Hudson along with the many new transfer additions and there’s a case to be made that UCF has genuinely done all it can to make the dream of a Big 12 title a reality.
That’s the positive way of looking at things. But that certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns.
What does it say about Malzahn that he saw the roster he had assembled last season — with an inconsistent and injury-prone QB in John Rhys Plumlee, a linebacker room that had been decimated by the portal and a number of transfer additions who were already shaping up to be busts by the end of spring ball — and believed something like a 9-3 or 10-2 season was the goal?
Everyone outside of Orlando knew what 2023 was going to be. How could the actual coaches not?
And while UCF has made plenty of changes this offseason to try to improve, there is legitimate concern about some of the paths chosen.
Roof was fired as Oklahoma’s DC just weeks before UCF picked him up, and it was a move that OU fans and media felt was a must.
Roof has spent decades bouncing around College Football and was disastrous as a head coach at Duke. The only seeming positive is that he coached with Malzahn in 2011 when Auburn won a national title.
A Power Four coordinator should be an attractive enough job to land a much better candidate than what is essentially a Malzahn Coaching Tree retread.
And there is perhaps no more worrying development than Malzahn’s decision to retake control of the offense and resume playcalling duties.
College Football has changed a lot in the last few years. Being a head coach has never been a more time-consuming job, with roster management, NIL fundraising and recruiting all outpacing the actual coaching in importance.
Head coaches across the country who traditionally ran the offense or defense have ceded those roles to their coordinators. Malzahn himself cited these reasons after 2022 when he initially decided to give up playcalling.
Has Malzahn taken back the offense because it’s what’s best for UCF? Or because he’s called plays throughout his career and — similarly to his time at Auburn — simply can’t bring himself to see another coach running his offense?
Productive change for a program is a good thing. Change for the sake of change to make up for a disappointing season is not.
And there is a larger issue to contend with as well: the depth of the Big 12.
In a league like the ACC or even the Big Ten, there are generally only two or three teams who enter a season genuinely believing they have the roster to win the conference.
In the Big 12, a league devoid of cupcake opponents where virtually every program is on even footing, there are as many as eight or nine teams thinking the same things about themselves as UCF is right now.
Kansas State, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Kansas and more all think this is their year.
UCF can do everything right, build out an amazing roster and it still simply might not be enough because the league is that competitive. There’s an element of luck involved and certain things need to break your way.
I don’t know what the 2024 season holds for UCF. There’s a very real chance that Malzahn’s changes pay off and the Knights are sitting at 10-2 or 11-1 at the end of November.
But there’s also a chance that the bar was raised too fast and one year from today fans will want him fired over something like a 9-4 record in Year 2 in the Power Four.
Either way, this staff has put all its chips on the table for the 2024. Now to see if it pays off.