Well, it looks like we will be living in a sport-free world for the next couple months. Given the now absurd amount of free time on our hands, I decided to finally do something I’ve been considering for a long time and tackle the biggest hypothetical scenarios in UCF Football history.
There’s a surprising number of avenues to explore for a program so young. This is more than just listing out what could have been. I did a fairly hefty amount of research to try to lay out what UCF looks like today if certain things play out differently. Each day this week, I’ll be adding more hypotheticals to this story as my research continues.
If you have any scenarios you would like for me to explore, feel free to tweet at me at @ByCASimmons.
So here you go: The biggest What-If’s in UCF’s short history.
1. What if UCF lost to USF in 2017?
Everyone is devastated that the sports world has ceased to exist, so why not start off with a devastating hypothetical. Back in 2017, No. 14 UCF was just beginning to pick up attention on the national scale, but was still far removed from the College Football Playoff, Group of Five and National Champion debates that would dominate the coming months.
These Knights were 10-0 and had been beating opponents with ease but had earned just one ranked win and still had everything to lose: the winner of their game with the 9-1 USF Bulls would be advancing to the AAC Championship.
With 1:28 left in the game, after USF had just tied things up with a two-point conversion, Mike Hughes pulled off the impossible by retuning the Bulls’ kickoff for a legendary touchdown that gave the Knights a lead they never looked back from. But what if he doesn’t return that kick? Let’s say that Hughes was instead tackled around UCF’s 20-yard line and the Knights never got anything going on their possession. UCF punts with less than a minute to go and Quinton Flowers flings a big pass downfield, as he had throughout the night, setting the Bulls up for a game-winning field goal.
How much does this change things? More than you’re probably even imagining.
First and foremost, UCF’s dream season is over. The Knights don’t play for the AAC Championship (which is won by Memphis) and don’t go to the Peach Bowl. Instead, UCF heads to the Liberty Bowl where it takes down 7-5 Iowa State. It’s still just the program’s fourth ever bowl win and gives the team an 11-1 finish and Top 25 ranking, all just two years after going winless. But UCF never gets the chance to become a national brand and still loses renowned coach Scott Frost to Nebraska.
Much more importantly and consequentially, the AAC and Group of Five as a whole never get the respect that was earned by UCF’s landmark win over Auburn. This is much more widespread than you might think.
In the first three years of the CFP Era, only nine total G5 teams finished a season with a Top 25 ranking. In the three years since UCF showed just how much the mid majors are capable of, 17 G5 teams have finished ranked. The victory over Auburn (and the national championship claim) opened the door for non-Power Five teams to be taken seriously. Without that respect, the AAC likely doesn’t get as lucrative of a TV deal as it just recently signed, and the gap between the haves and have-nots grows. Instead, an expanded playoff is on the horizon after the CFP’s TV deal ends in 2026 and a Group of Five auto-bid is all but assured.
So, if you get a chance, thank Mike Hughes for returning that kick.
2. What if Blake Bortles returned for his senior season?
We have to do a little more stretching than usual for this one, simply because it never made sense for Bortles to return after his bowl performance in 2013 put him squarely in the mix for best available QB in the draft.
But let’s say that Bortles just isn’t ready to leave UCF. The Oviedo native wants one more year with his hometown team and, much like Justin Herbert did with Oregon this past season, he decides to stick around for one last year to see what his squad can accomplish.
Some background for this: The Knights were coming off a breakout season in the AAC’s inaugural year after wracking up big time wins to earn a conference championship and head to the Fiesta Bowl, where they took down Baylor in one of the biggest upsets in BCS history.
Heading into 2014, the AAC has lost its auto-bid but the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six slot is still up for grabs. Given Bortles’ return along with much of the rest of that 12-1 roster, UCF would have been the only Group of Five team to appear in the preseason AP Top 25. (No, seriously. There were no G5 teams in the Preseason AP Poll that year. Just shows how much things have changed in the last few years.)
Now let’s hop back to the real world for a second to recap how 2014 actually went for UCF. The Knights opened the season against Penn State in Ireland, but were narrowly defeated after starting quarterback Pete DiNovo proved incapable of leading the team in the first half. Justin Holman took over from there and, despite a couple hiccups along the way, led UCF to a 9-3 record and second-straight AAC Championship. The Knights fell to NC State in the St. Pete Bowl to finish 9-4.
So, let’s take a look at what changes if Bortles came back. First off, UCF starts the year with a statement win over Penn State, showing that the Knights aren’t going anywhere. The team drops its next game in a close contest on the road against No. 20 Missouri, but bounces back with five straight wins.
UCF then suffers through a potential trap game on the road against lowly UConn, but Bortles’ talent proves to be too much as the Knights keep on winning, going on to finish 11-1 and earn an undisputed AAC Championship. As the only ranked one-loss Group of Five team in the nation, UCF earns a bid to a major bowl for the second straight year and the team heads to the Peach Bowl to face No. 9 Ole Miss. (The bid actually went to 11-2 Boise State that season. Marshall went 12-1 but did not earn a spot in the CFP Rankings after playing 0 P5 teams. It was an incredibly weak year for the Group of Five.)
Whether that game ends with a victory or not, things clearly look very different for UCF right now if it had back-to-back major bowl seasons as early as 2014. And it’s not much of a stretch that this is how things play out if Bortles came back. The Knights were only a combined 10 points away from an 11-1 record without him.
If the Fiesta Bowl had been followed up with another huge season, UCF may have not been perceived as a fluky team, things might have been more stable around the organization and the 2015 debacle never happens. The Knights could have been a national power for years by now, albeit with much worse uniforms since Frost and his Nike connections never would have arrived.
3. What if UCF was invited to a bowl in Daunte Culpepper’s final season?
Younger UCF fans might not even know about this scenario, but the Knights came excruciatingly close to making a bowl game just two years after moving to FBS. Led by superstar quarterback Daunte Culpepper (yes, young fans. He played at UCF) the team broke out for a huge year in 1998, going 9-2 as an independent with a perfect record at home and a narrow four-point loss to Auburn on the road.
Now I know what you’re thinking, younger fans. How could a nine-win team, even an independent, not make a bowl? Well you see, long ago there used to not be approximately a million bowl games. In fact, there were just 22 postseason contests in 1998 and it was the first year that there was even a national championship game agreed upon by all major conferences.
But even with those slim odds, it was still looking like the Knights would get the recognition their season deserved with a trip to the Oahu Bowl. UCF reached a verbal agreement to play in the bowl, most likely against Air Force. But is was contingent on undefeated UCLA beating Miami at the end of the season. And guess what didn’t happen!
Miami pulled off the upset and the Knights would have to wait another seven years to play in a bowl, not to mention 12 years before winning one.
So how differently do things play out if Miami loses and UCF takes on Air Force in Hawaii? It’s hard to say for sure, but it definitely would have significantly accelerated things.
You have to really put yourself back into the 90’s to understand just how huge this would have been. UCF was brand new to FBS. It had no brand, no name recognition. This was way before every game was televised so even hardcore college football fans wouldn’t have had the first clue who some random Orlando independent team was.
But getting onto the national stage in one of just 22 bowls that quickly would’ve been huge for UCF. And if they won… man. We’d be talking about a 19-year-old program notching a 10-win season and bowl win against a well-known opponent after going toe-to-toe with a major SEC team on the road. And on top of that, it would be sending a first-round quarterback to the NFL.
The exposure would have been massive and could have sped up UCF’s trajectory by a decade or more. The Knights could have been in line with Utah, TCU and Boise State as another mid-major power of the 2000’s. Maybe UCF even parlays that exposure and later success into a Big East invite years before the conference collapses.
If Miami had just done what it does so often these days and lost, UCF could legitimately have been a power team for years by now.