UCF has accomplished almost everything it set out to do this season.
The Knights (10-3) won a Conference USA championship. They got the first Top 25 ranking in school history. They have more wins than any other FBS program in the state.
Now comes the one thing that has forever eluded them. A bowl win.
Making it to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Georgia (6-6) on Friday is simply not good enough. Not when you have designs on building a respectable non-AQ program.
“I definitely think a win will validate the program,” linebacker Derrick Hallman said. “People say, ‘They have a lot of wins, but who have they beaten?’ This will be a statement.”
UCF is 0-3 in its brief bowl history. It has been playing on the FBS level since 1996, but it was not until coach George O’Leary arrived that the Knights started playing in conference championship and bowl games. The Knights have taken all the right steps, but a bowl win is the next big leap.
“The first time we went to bowls was when we got here. Getting there was what they looked at,” O’Leary said. “Now you get to bowls and the whole purpose is to win.”
UCF has had its share of bowl heartbreak. A quick recap:
The Knights came the closest to a win in its first ever bowl appearance in 2005, against Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. UCF had engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in NCAA history, going from zero wins to eight. The Knights sent the game into overtime after recovering an onside kick and scoring with 55 seconds remaining. But kicker Matt Prater missed the tying extra point in overtime and UCF lost 49-48.
On the heels of its first Conference USA championship in 2007, UCF faced Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl. But the Knights were not quite ready for prime time, turning the ball over four times, missing two field goals and managing just 86 yards passing. They went 4-of-17 on third down and lost 10-3.
Last season, UCF did not have far to go, playing Rutgers in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg. But once again the Knights failed to show up, mustering 35 yards on the ground and again failing on third down, converting just 4-of-15 attempts in a 45-24 loss.
But there is something different about this team. For one, it is experienced, especially on defense. UCF features 19 seniors, including 11 starters – seven on defense. The senior class has 32 wins, tied with the senior class of 1990 for the most in school history. They won the first two conference championships in school history, tied the school record for wins in a season twice (10) and have taken it upon themselves to try to make this program into an elite one.
“We want to leave this program on the right foot,” Hallman said. “We were part of the first conference championship. We were part of another conference championship, and we want to be a part of the first bowl victory.”
What would make a victory in this game even better is the opponent. UCF is just 2-45 against teams from automatic qualifying conferences since it moved up to FBS in 1996. The Knights came oh-so-close to beating NC State and Kansas State this season. Its last win against an AQ school was to open the 2007 against NC State.
A win over an SEC opponent would be the perfect cap to all the accomplishments the senior class has made. But it could also potentially serve as a new beginning for a program struggling to make its own name.
“Our team right now is really moving in the right direction,” senior defensive end Bruce Miller said. “The next step for us is this bowl win. It’s really big for us to get this one against a tradition-rich program in Georgia. Winning that game is what everyone wants to see.”