UCF achieved a moment 40-plus years in the making this week as the program officially joined the Big 12 on July 1. For the first time ever and after decades of work, the Knights finally achieved the remarkable feat of climbing all the way from Division III to the Power Five.
These are exciting times with plenty of big moments and dreams for Knight Nation to look forward to. It can be hard to keep track of it all, so we decided to make a list.
Here are the top 12 things UCF fans can look forward to in the Big 12:
There were plenty of compelling reasons for UCF to make the leap from the AAC to the Big 12. But few will have a bigger impact than the money now coming the Knights’ way.
The Big 12’s new TV deal will reportedly deliver an annual payout of around $50 million to each of its members. That’s a massive jump from the $8.8 million UCF received from the AAC for the 2021-22 year.
The Knights were able to build a program capable of winning conference titles, finishing in the Top 25 regularly and competing in multiple New Year’s Six bowls with a fraction of the resources available to college football’s big brands.
Now, UCF will soon receive more television revenue in a given year than Florida State or Miami. That’s a huge deal.
From facilities to recruiting budgets and coaching salaries, that cash infusion will help UCF boost its athletics department in a way that simply wasn’t possible with AAC money.
2. Joining a conference made up entirely of passionate fanbases
UCF may just now be joining the Big 12, but its fanbase has been at a Power Five level for many years.
With over 300,000 living alumni and one of the largest student bodies in the country, Knight Nation has no issue packing the Bounce House, helping propel the team’s TV ratings to attractive heights and making their presence felt on social media.
That is not the case for the vast majority of the AAC.
While UCF has developed a great, deeply passionate fanbase over the years, the program has been stuck in a conference where that is far from the norm. That’s not to say it’s entirely absent. Programs like Cincinnati or Memphis are obviously closer to P5 than G5 when it comes to fanbases.
But much of the rest of the conference was simply nowhere near that level, with half empty stadiums, little social media presence and nonexistent interest in any non-football sports.
The Big 12 is a very different world.
Every single fanbase UCF now shares a league with is huge, loud and passionate. Iowa State just finished a 4-8 season that saw them finish last place in the Big 12… and the team had over 52,000 fans in attendance for every home game.
For the first time ever, Knight Nation will be entirely surrounded by fanbases that care deeply for their teams. That will help to make every win more fun, every loss more excruciating and every road environment exciting.
3. More big games
On top of having little access to passionate fanbases to develop rivalries with in the AAC, UCF’s ability to play in big regular season games was also severely limited at the Group of Five level.
The Knights constructed some incredible rosters in the AAC and proved their value in postseason contests like the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.
But the simple truth is that there just aren’t as many good teams (and brands that earn pity rankings) at the G5 level.
In the Big 12, UCF is virtually guaranteed a handful of big-time regular season opponents no matter what.
In 2022, each Big 12 team faced an average of four Top 25 opponents in the regular season. That’s as many as UCF faced in the last four years combined.
Seven of the Big 12’s 10 teams last year made an appearance in the AP Top 25 at some point during the season.
Just by being a member of this league, UCF will have more access to exciting, big-time regular season games than they ever have before.
4. An exciting conference to follow
Every fan loves to keep up with the rest of their conference, whether they are watching to scout a future opponent or because the result of a game will affect their team’s place in the league standings.
For UCF throughout its recent history, that has meant flipping to CBS Sports Network or navigating to ESPN+ to watch a game that has zero impact on anything in the greater college football landscape.
The Knights now join a league which will have games on major networks with national implications every week.
Games affecting UCF’s destiny will go from a lifeless Temple-South Florida contest played on a Friday to matchups like TCU-Oklahoma State or Baylor-West Virginia.
5. Being a larger part of the national conversation
This may be the one that UCF fans are least prepared for. It’s hard to quantify the volume of additional attention the Knights will now receive just by being in a Power Five conference.
The narrative of college football – from The Athletic and ESPN articles to College Gameday, podcasts and radio shows – is set at the P5 level.
In the past, UCF needed to achieve insane feats like winning 25 games in a row or blowing out P5 opponents just to get mentioned. If the Knights were having anything less than a Top 15 season, they were completely shut out of the conversation.
Even mid-level P5 teams enjoy a much stronger spotlight than those in the G5.
Finally being invited to the club will give UCF the chance to immediately up its exposure and take its brand to another level.
6. Having the chance to earn respect not available at the G5 level
By virtually any metric, UCF has been one of the most successful programs in college football over the last decade.
In that span, the Knights have been to three major bowl games, finished in the Top 10 twice, in the Top 25 four times and secured four conference titles.
And yet, many casual college football fans don’t respect them. At all.
We’ve all seen the tweets and articles.
“UCF plays a cupcake schedule.”
“They would be winless if they played in a real conference.”
“My team would be undefeated too if that was who we played.”
For a lot of (badly misinformed) fans, there’s essentially nothing UCF can do at the Group of Five level that will ever impress them. Any accomplishments will always be viewed as second-class.
Now, that finally changes. The Knights will be in the third richest conference in college football, one that just put a team in the national championship game and has seen four different programs qualify for New Year’s Six bowls in the last two seasons.
There will always be trolls (and UF fans) but UCF now has the chance to change the minds of a lot of casual college football viewers.
7. Reaching new highs in recruiting
The term “sleeping giant” has been applied to UCF repeatedly over the years and it has particularly been true in recruiting. The Knights have built some very strong rosters thanks to smart evaluations, finding guys who want to stay home and taking chances on players who would be in the SEC if they were three inches taller or 20 pounds heavier.
But now, for the first time ever, UCF is in position to go after some of the top recruits in the country.
This change is already underway. The team signed three Top 300 recruits in 2023 and already has three more four-star commits for 2024 (with more almost certainly on the way).
UCF sits smack in the middle of one of the richest talent hotbeds in the country. But no matter how good the program got, many of those great prospects viewed themselves as P5 players and couldn’t justify voluntarily signing on to play in a Group of Five league.
That barrier is finally removed, and recruiting is off to the races. Combine Big 12 status with an elite coaching staff and strong NIL operation and the sky is the limit for recruiting in the coming years.
8. Better bowl games
Bowl games have always been a boom or bust gambit for UCF. The team often had to be good enough to make it to a New Year’s Six bowl to have a shot at an elite or compelling opponent. Anything less than a historic year and the Knights were often sent to some lifeless stadium against an uninteresting foe.
That will not be the case in the Big 12.
Of the eight Big 12 teams that qualified for bowl games in 2022, seven matched up with a Power Five opponent.
Oklahoma State had an up-and-down 7-5 season and was rewarded with a matchup against Wisconsin. Oklahoma had a disastrous 6-6 year and still got to face Top 15 Florida State in their bowl game.
Just by qualifying for the postseason, UCF is close to guaranteed to face an exciting Power Five opponent to help cap off each year in a memorable way.
Gone are the days of going 9-3 just to be sent to face a bad Marshall team in the Gasparilla Bowl.
9. Higher ceilings for the non-football sports
UCF has seen something of a sports renaissance in the last five-plus years. Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball, Softball, Volleyball, Men’s Soccer and Women’s Soccer have all had their moments in the national spotlight.
But, when you play in a mid-major conference, there is always a ceiling.
UCF Softball won a regional that it got to host just to be seeded against historic juggernaut Oklahoma in its Super Regional. UCF Women’s Basketball had what could have been an all-time year ended early due to having to face powerhouse UConn in the second round. UCF Volleyball steamrolled its way through the AAC just to be quickly dispatched by UCLA.
Big 12 membership will help change those outcomes in two big ways.
First off, UCF teams will no longer face poor seeding in their respective tournaments due to conference status. Succeed at a high level in the Big 12 and you will be rewarded with a favorable postseason path.
And second, the Knights no longer have to be the literal best team in their conference to make it to a tournament. In many sports, being fourth, fifth or even sixth will net similar tournament access that UCF teams received for winning the AAC.
The ceiling for every non-football sport has just been raised in a big way.
10. Space Games against Power Five opponents
UCF first started its annual Space Game tradition in 2017 and it has since grown into one of college football’s loveable staples. From the insane uniforms and outfits in the crowd to shining a spotlight on the school’s key role in the space program, the game has become a giant marketing/brand awareness opportunity for UCF.
Even though it’s always played in largely meaningless games.
Through six Space Games, the opponents have been:
- 1-5 East Carolina
- 5-3 Temple
- 3-5 Houston
- 2-3 Tulane
- 4-3 Memphis
- 2-3 Temple
To be clear, this has partially been intentional. Playing the game against a weaker opponent puts the highlight on space itself and helps guarantee a win.
But think about how much hype UCF has gotten for those games played against bad opponents solely because of it being the Space Game. Now imagine that game against West Virginia on FOX. Or against Baylor on ABC.
With this new platform and increased exposure (along with the stellar uniforms cooked up by UCF) the Space Game could grow in coming years into one of the most well-known traditions in college football.
11. Leaving USF behind
You know what’s almost as great as UCF going to the Power Five? The fact that USF is not.
15 years ago, the Bulls could not have been more contemptuous and dismissive of the Knights if they tried. USF was finding success in the Big East, had been No. 2 in the country for a whole week and was convinced that its destiny was to become a true peer of Miami, Florida and Florida State.
Eight losing seasons, zero on-campus stadiums and eight losses to the Knights later, the Bulls are a complete afterthought in both realignment and college football as a whole.
UCF fans endured a lot of over-the-top hate and painful on-field moments courtesy of USF back in the day. The Bulls now sharing a league with the likes or Rice, Charlotte and North Texas as the Knights head to the Big 12 makes this moment that much sweeter.
12. Establishing new rivalries
10 years ago when UCF joined the AAC, Knight Nation was excited about finally sharing a league with USF while also maintaining old rivalries with teams like East Carolina and Memphis.
Little thought was given to Big East holdover Cincinnati, a program UCF had no history with.
A decade later, the animosity between the Knights and Bearcats rivals that of the War on I4 at its peak. Those fanbases hate each other. A lot.
As UCF moves into the Big 12, one of the most exciting and unknown factors is the forging of new rivalries. Out there right now as this is written is a team that Knight fans have no ill will towards at all.
It could be Kansas State. Or Texas Tech. Maybe West Virginia. Really, it could be any of them.
But 10 years from now, one of those teams will absolutely hate UCF and the feeling will be mutual. Their games will be sold out and fans will be sniping at each other on social media weeks in advance.
And right now, we have no idea who it will be.
There are plenty of unknowns as UCF enters this new era. And that will make the coming years so much fun as new traditions, new moments and new rivalries grow.