It certainly is an exciting time to be a UCF Football fan. That’s a weird thing to say given that the team is coming off a remarkably disappointing 6-4 season. It’s even more weird when you remember that the Knights’ Athletic Director and Head Coach bolted for the SEC within days of each other just a couple months ago.
But that’s the power of Gus Malzahn.
He’s only been here for a few weeks, but it might not be a stretch to call him the most instantly popular hire in UCF history. Josh Heupel was surrounded by questions about how he would fair taking over an undefeated team. Scott Frost was a relative unknown, and excitement was somewhat muted given his quiet manner and the Knights’ disastrous record the year prior. Heck, even George O’Leary’s hire was mired in controversy due to his Notre Dame dismissal.
And then there’s Malzahn. Knight Nation has spent the last five years hearing from two coaches who didn’t enjoy the spotlight and were more focused on keeping their heads down and setting themselves up for their next gig than campaigning for the brand. How could we be prepared for the Gus Bus? Just think about some of the many tantalizing promises he’s laid out to fans in his introductory presser and national media appearances since:
“They’ve had some really good coaches and they left and all that. I’m committed to staying here and really taking that next step.”
“I really believe that we could play in the Final Four, and I think it’ll be a short period of time.”
“We’re gonna have to get a Top 10 team on our schedule in non-conference and we’ve got to beat them.”
I mean come on. Even the most jaded of UCF fans are ready to run through a wall. So naturally, as is often my role in Knight Nation it seems, I’m here to try to lower expectations!
Look, I get it. It’s just hard not to get excited hearing Malzahn lay out his goals for the program. But it seems like some fans are running the risk of taking these goals as immediate realities. 2021 will almost certainly be a better year than 2020. The Knights should have the talent, and coaching, to make a run at a 10-win season and a Top 25 appearance. An AAC Championship game berth is also within the realm of possibility if things break right. But a return to the New Year’s Six? Crashing the Playoff? These are long term aspirations.
It’s absolutely fair to say that the football program is in a better place now under Malzahn than it was under Heupel a couple months ago. But a change in leadership doesn’t change reality. UCF is still losing 68 percent of its rushing yards and 59 percent of its receiving yards. The defense is still coming off its worst season since the team went winless. And the Knights are still facing what might be their toughest schedule since joining the AAC.
All aboard the Gus Bus or not, these just aren’t factors that add up to another 2017-style season. And Malzahn clearly knows that.
He’s talked about the importance of upping the level UCF recruits at. That won’t pay dividends for at least a couple seasons. He’s declared that the Knights will have to play and beat a Top 10 team in the regular season. The absolute earliest that could happen is 2023 or 2024. But that’s all good news. A coach laying out long term goals is a coach who expects to be here long term. Frost and Heupel never wanted to think more than a year out.
UCF could hit its highest peak yet under Malzahn if he’s serious about staying. In fact, I expect them to. Having a coach in place who is a brilliant offensive mind and who, for the first time in this program’s history, truly understands the value of this brand basically means the sky is the limit.
It’s just not all going to magically happen in 2021.
A 9-3 or 10-2 season this year would be a great foundation for what Gus is building towards. It gets UCF in the Top 25, it keeps those high-level recruits interested and it would send Dillon Gabriel out with something like a 25-9 record as a starter.
I just ask that if this is the type of season we’re in store for, that fans don’t turn on Malzahn or find some way to label it “mediocre” or “disappointing.”
We’ve got the right guy in place, the guy that can lead UCF to everything fans have dreamt of. But let’s not demand our wildest dreams on Day 1.