UCF’s season did not live up to expectations. Of course, when your expectations are a conference championship, New Year’s Six appearance and an undefeated record, that will happen from time to time. But that sure didn’t make missing out on those goals any easier, even when the writing was on the wall the whole time.
Were the Knights really not going to see a drop off when its best player in school history left with an injury? Or when his backup and presumed replacement went down right before training camp? Or when the AAC, a conference that usually fields one or two top programs, saw more than half of its teams competing for a conference title well into the season?
In hindsight, this was never going to be the year that Knight Nation wanted it to be. But some fans, albeit a small but vocal minority, don’t see this season as a disappointment. They see it as a failure. A travesty. Something that should put Josh Heupel on the hot seat and send the seniors off embarrassed. If you had no access to how this year had gone for UCF and only the reactions of some of its fans, you might think the Knights had suffered through another campaign like 2015.
UCF’s 25-0 run gave a lot of things. It created an overnight brand for a fledgling school. It infused the College Football Playoff Committee with its biggest controversy to date. And it gave Group of Five teams a real chance at respect, something that never came to fruition even during Boise State’s historic stretch.
But for fans, UCF’s run also took something away: perspective.
When you’ve experienced nothing but highs for two years, finally feeling the lows can be unbearable. It’s the true explanation of the fury of the fan base on Sunday as it found out the team would be playing in the Gasparilla Bowl. Was there any mention of the fact that it will be the Knights’ fourth straight bowl, something that has never happened before? Or a retrospective on the fact that those years directly succeeded the worst collapse in school history? Or even some excitement at the prospect of facing an old rival and ending this decade with a 6th 10-win season in 10 years?
No. Of course not. Because when you’re used to Selection Sunday determining which Top 10 opponent you’ll be facing in a major bowl, anything else starts to feel worthless. Even though it isn’t.
Some UCF fans have completely lost their perspective. But I’ve got great news, I’m about to give it back to you.
At the start of this season, UCF had already lost superstar gamechanger McKenzie Milton, as well as his backup and replacement Darriel Mack. The Knights, now forced to start a true freshman well before he was ever expected to see the field, would be facing a much more daunting schedule than in either of the previous seasons. But the expectation of a conference championship and New Year’s Six Bowl remained.
The team struggled at times, as you do when playing a true freshman. They lost a game that they shouldn’t have. There were coaching decisions that were more than questionable. But UCF fought through all that to get to 9-3, just two fewer wins than it had posted in last year’s regular season. Disappointing? Sure. But devastating? Unforgiveable? Not exactly. Why don’t we take a look at some of the other teams who made an appearance in the preseason Top 25 and had lofty expectations of their own.
Texas was finally back, having played for the Big 12 Title and won the Sugar Bowl last year, and looking primed for a run at the Playoff behind star quarterback Sam Ehlinger. It started the season ranked in the Top 10. The Longhorns went 7-5.
Washington had stepped up to become a Pac-12 dynasty, winning the league in 2018 for the second time in three years and looking for a fourth straight New Year’s Six appearance going into this season. The Huskies went 7-5.
Nebraska, the long-forgotten dynasty now led by Scott Frost, had won four of its last six games last year and was clearly ready to make the jump under its new leader, earning a spot in the AP Top 25. The Huskers, as I’m sure you know, saw their season end a couple weeks ago, with questions swirling about how a program with that much promise couldn’t even stumble into a bowl when so many other teams did.
Suddenly UCF dropping from 12-1 to most likely 10-3 doesn’t seem so catastrophic, does it? Maybe all those tweets at Heupel telling him to step down and at AD Danny White to “fix” the program are just a bit premature.
You can be disappointed in this season. You can wish better decisions had been made at the end of close games. But you cannot call it a failure. You can’t demand that UCF be like Bama and win its conference every year when the Crimson Tide have not even won their division in two of the last three seasons. You can’t shout that the Knights should be like Boise and make a New Year’s Six every year when the Broncos made just three in eight seasons.
Here’s what you can do: be grateful. UCF is in the midst of its best era in history. 10-win seasons are now the norm. True freshman Dillon Gabriel has heavily impressed and the Knights are set at a team’s most critical position for years. All is good, Knight Nation. Take a breath, enjoy it and try not to lose your perspective down the line.