Following his team’s dismantling of Power Five opponent Stanford on Saturday, UCF coach Josh Heupel was asked a simple question during his postgame presser. Does this win get the Knights back into the national conversation?
“Did we ever leave?” the typically reserved coach shot back. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve been part of the noise, the chatter, as you want to call it.”
It’s true that UCF has never really gone away. After an unprecedented 25-1 stretch (and a national championship, depending on who you’re talking to) the Knights quickly became everyone’s favorite team to hate as they loudly railed against what they perceived as an unfair system that prevented them from making the College Football Playoff.
That strategy was far from the rule-following mindset employed by previous Group of Five powers, but it kept UCF at the forefront of a sport that would have quickly forgotten it otherwise.
That was starting to change going into Saturday. The Knights were still the highest-ranked Group of Five team, but that point of pride was seeing its first challenges. Boise State continued to be heaped with praise for its win over Florida State. Many bowl projections had the Broncos or conference foes Cincinnati and Memphis capturing the New Year’s Six bid. The Knights’ two wins, while dominant, were largely discounted and ignored due to level of competition.
Saturday was UCF’s chance to horde all those headlines back to itself once again, and snuff out any doubt about who runs the mid majors.
Instead, the Knights catapulted themselves into uncharted territory: genuine playoff contention.
UCF trampled Stanford, defeating the perennial Pac 12 power 45-27 for its biggest and most important regular season win in years.
“I think from the outside there is that. I think everybody waits to see us against a Power Five opponent,” Heupel said. “If you look at our league and our league, how they play against those other Power Six conferences, we’ll hold our own every single week.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not from the AAC. Even athletic director Danny White himself had said UCF would never qualify in a four-team format due to leniency afforded to Power Five teams. But it suddenly all feels very real.
The Knights jumped into the Top 15 of the AP Poll on Sunday, a place they have never been so early in the season and didn’t even reach until Oct. 29 of 2017. ESPN’s playoff predictor gives UCF the ninth-best chance to make the Playoff, ahead of any Pac 12 team. National media largely swung to the team’s side for the first time, with Kirk Herbstreit going so far as to say the Knights belong in the top 10 right now and could challenge for a top four spot down the road.
It took over two years and a marquee home win, but UCF’s championship aspirations finally feel like more than a pipe dream. Not that the team would ever let on.
“I can’t answer for the whole team but for me, I don’t even know what the rankings [are],” safety Richie Grant said. “We’re earning our respect out on the field. We can’t control where they put us at, so we just go out there and dominate.”
Was the Stanford win really that impressive? Maybe. But there’s no way around the fact that the Cardinal are in a down year. The real culprit behind UCF’s newfound respect may simply be time. The Knights just aren’t going away.
In Year Three of the team’s dominance, it’s just getting too difficult to find ways to discount them.
“People that watch us play understand that we play championship-caliber football each and every week,” Heupel said. “We’ve got tremendous players in there. If you look at our roster and really study the roster, we’ve got special players up and down our depth charts at all positions.”
Through three contests, UCF is putting up 51.7 points per game, good enough for sixth in the nation. That unit was supposed to take a step back with the loss of McKenzie Milton, but has looked just as dangerous with true freshman Dillon Gabriel in at quarterback. The defense has also had a strong start to the season, ranking 19th in points per game allowed.
The Knights refuse to go away, and becoming the first team in decades to record three straight undefeated regular seasons could just be enough to do the impossible and crash the College Football Playoff.