In the eyes of most of the college football world, UCF is just the latest Group of Five team to put together a strong one-off year and make it to a New Year’s Six bowl. But UCF fans and Orlando residents are in on the “secret” that the Knights have seen quite a run of success over the past decade.
Five conference championships, eight bowl appearances and two New Year’s Six wins in that timeframe have established the team as one of the scarier Group of Five members, even with that 2015 winless season.
But UCF fans are also probably aware that an encore performance has never been one of the team’s strong suits. The Knights have a troubling, years-long history of following up breakthrough seasons with disappointing performances.
In 2007, UCF opened its new on-campus stadium, won its first conference championship, and achieved its first 10-win season. A year later, the team finished 4-8.
In 2010, the Knights snagged their first ever bowl win, won 11 games and finished with an AP Top 25 ranking for the first time ever. Next season, they were 5-7.
Even after 2013, the year UCF shocked the college football world with one of the biggest upsets in BCS history by winning the Fiesta Bowl, the team was losing in the Bitcoin Bowl a year later. Despite all of the Knights’ accomplishments and impressive years, they just can’t seem to string two strong seasons together.
So why should 2018 be any different? After going undefeated and claiming a national championship, is UCF destined for a disappointing year this season?
The answer is a little tricky. First off, the Knights have never been in a position like this before. The team was often dealing with the loss of major players in their letdown seasons. After ‘07, UCF lost its starting quarterback as well as star running back Kevin Smith and following ‘13, Blake Bortles headed to the NFL. The 2018 Knights, on the other hand, are returning a ridiculous amount of talent.
The reigning top offense in the nation is returning almost unscathed, and has made a couple of big additions, such as Ole Miss transfer Tre Nixon. Budding superstar McKenzie Milton will be looking to secure the title of best QB in school history, and could even challenge for the Heisman. Add in the fact that the two other AAC powers, Memphis and USF, lost a number of significant players, and it looks like UCF is primed to steamroll its conference.
Given that their schedule as a whole should be easier than last year’s, the Knights should have no problem putting together at least a 10-win season and possibly even going undefeated again. But there are still other factors in play. The team is adjusting to an entirely new coaching staff and, while Josh Heupel seemed to have a very successful spring, it’s not clear how much of an adjustment period will be needed once the season starts.
But the biggest obstacle by far to UCF having a successful year is something a little less tangible: expectations. A year ago, a 9 or 10 win season would’ve been considered a huge accomplishment for the Knights. After all, the team has only finished with 10 or more wins five times since joining FBS.
But following 2017, everything has changed. UCF was one of the best teams in the nation and most fans are expecting at least another trip to a New Years Six bowl. It’s not that outlandish to think that a 9-3 season, or even a 10-2 campaign that falls short of a major bowl, would be considered a huge letdown.
So, the answer to the question of whether or not 2018 will be a successful year really lies with the fans. This team is very good. We all know that. This will easily be a top-five year for a program that is still very young. But will it be remembered that way? Only time, and expectations, will tell.