SCOTTSDALE – The Central Florida Knights have won 25 straight games and will play in a New Year’s Six bowl for a second consecutive year.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that was 0-12 just three seasons ago.
“I remember our games my freshman year. There were nobody there,” senior defensive lineman Titus Davis said. “Literally, it looked like a high school soccer game and it was real sad, discouraging for the next years. A lot of guys chose their own fate, they left and didn’t stick it out. I just commend my seniors for sticking it out and the success we’ve had these past few years.”
This commitment is one of the main reasons UCF will play in Tuesday’s Fiesta Bowl against LSU at University of Phoenix Stadium. Throw in improved recruiting, successful coaching hires and a supportive community and the result is a winning formula.
After beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl last season, UCF finished its schedule undefeated.
High expectations accompanied coach Josh Heupel’s hire a year ago when he replaced Scott Frost, who accepted the head coaching position at his alma mater, Nebraska. Heupel believed the key to continuing last season’s success was maintaining the team’s bond.
“I think the culture that resides inside our locker room is extremely important, relationships that our coaching staff were able to form,” Heupel said. “We’ve spent a ton of time with our players outside of the game of football, having an opportunity just to get to know who and what they are as people.
“We put ourselves in a position to handle adversity because of the relationships we have. We’re all in sync and on the same page. When you get 125 kids and the coaching staff doing that, going in one direction, you have an opportunity to be extremely successful.”
Large fan base
Located in Orlando just minutes away from the city’s theme parks, the university boasts one of the nation’s largest student bodies with more than 68,000 students.
For a while, the program was unable to capitalize on that large student population. In 2015, the Knights posted an 0-12 record, averaging just 30,166 fans a game. This season, as UCF won its second straight conference championship, the team averaged 44,018.
Last season, UCF crowned itself “national champion,” finishing as the only unbeaten team in the country even though Alabama won the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship. Around campus, UCF painted “national champions” logos on campus police vehicles, held a “national championship” parade and raised a “national championship” banner in the stadium.
The community bought in.
This season, the moniker UCF has adopted is “Orlando’s Hometown Team.” Heupel, who was the University of Arizona’s tight ends coach in 2005, said the team has meant a lot to the community.
“I think the success we’ve had over the last couple of years has driven and created a ton of excitement surrounding our program. We have become the hometown team and we take a lot of pride in that,” Heupel said. “I’ve coached in the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC and there’s not a better game-day environment than when you walk out of our tunnel and onto that football field.”
The senior class experienced the winless season. They saw the stadium’s empty seats. Now they are the talk of the town and campus.
“The students, everyone around Orlando, love it. The stadium has been packed all year and it’s been great,” senior linebacker Pat Jasinski said. “As a player, it’s pretty awesome to see how everyone gets to watch you all play as a group. The whole university is behind us and all Orlando is behind us. To see how far we’ve come since this senior class has been here is pretty special.”
A rough start
Davis played during the winless season and dealt with conflicting emotions, excited to be a college student but saddened about the losses.
“The 0-12 year was actually a fun year for a freshman just being on campus and being in college enjoying the little parties and stuff like that then going to school,” Davis said. “(But) going 0-12 was terrible for an athlete. I don’t wish that on nobody.”
During his redshirt year, UCF won a conference championship. The next season, his first year playing, the team went winless and he immediately thought it was because of him.
The school, he said, has “climbed out of that hole” and birthed a winning program.
“I think you gain a lot more respect for something when you build it yourself,” Miller said. “That’s why this program is so special to me, so special to a lot of these guys on these podiums and guys who have been here for four or five years, because we built this here. This is something that we’ve been laying our body on the line for five years now and guys before us that have laid the foundation to be where we are right now.”
The senior class has left a long-lasting impact on the football program that will be felt for years to come at Central Florida.
“The legacy of this senior class is the legacy of being able to handle adversity and creating a great culture. It is about the process and loving their teammates and being able to go and chase championships,” Heupel said. “It’s one of the most unique and intriguing stories in college football, in my opinion, considering how young this program is but yet the amount of success it’s had.”
Credit, too, well-respected coaching hires as well as improved recruiting. Junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, who finished in the Top 10 in pass efficiency this season, was part of Frost’s 2016 signing class.
The Knights have taken a week-by-week approach with a goal of going 1-0 each game day. They’ve done it 12 times and will look to make it 13 on Tuesday. Until they accomplish that, Davis believes the legacy of this senior class is incomplete.
“The fact that we turned it all the way around from 0-12 to undefeated, knowing that we’re not done yet, knowing our legacy will be built off this last game, knowing that everything up to his point means nothing if we go out and blow it,” Davis said. “Just looking forward to having high energy. We’ve been practicing well and we’re just looking forward to going 1-0 again.”