The champs* are here: A new era dawns at UCF

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Most mornings, UCF coach Josh Heupel and his assistants spread out among their players in the dining hall, grabbing plates filled with eggs and other breakfast staples before sitting down to eat and talk.

They rarely discuss X's and O's. They eat together so they can learn together, and whether that means talking about the basketball highlights on the televisions around them, classwork or their families, their meals have become an informal meet-and-greet serving a far greater purpose.

Because Heupel is under no illusions about the program he takes over from Scott Frost. He knows he has a team filled with highly competitive players committed to one another, who accomplished something nobody else at UCF ever had before: an undefeated season that ended with athletic director Danny White declaring them national champions.

That declaration brought more attention to UCF than the season itself, and that has many more eyes shifted toward the Knights as Heupel embarks on a challenge only a few head coaches have ever encountered. In recent history, only four head coaches have inherited a program that went undefeated the previous season: Frank Solich at Nebraska, Chris Scelfo at Tulane and Kyle Whittingham at Utah. Heupel became the fourth in December.

So the task before Heupel is distinct. Rather than tearing down the foundation to start anew, Heupel and his staff must find the right balance between keeping what has worked well at UCF and adding their own ideas, perspective and personality into the program. To do that, communication has taken on even greater importance.

"The unique thing in taking over a program that's 13-0 is they've been successful, and there's a certain way they did things, they have some comfort with it," Heupel said recently. "How do you get your players to buy in to what you're doing, and how do you make the transition as quickly and as seamlessly as possible? Instead of just coming in and throwing a playbook in front of our players and saying this is what we do, and this is how we do it, we sat back and asked, 'How do we share in the learning process with the players?'"

Hence the importance of eating together, where open-ended discussions allow for better understanding and relationships. In addition to that, Heupel has asked for significant input from the leadership council, asking his team leaders what worked well and not so well under the previous staff. When Heupel has made changes to their routines, he has specifically addressed why he decided to make those changes.

The best example, at least in the early going, is with workouts and food. Heupel decided to revamp the strength and conditioning program, and that, in turn, has changed the way his players eat. UCF now has one in-house company that provides all their meals, and those meals are based on recommendations from the strength and conditioning staff.

"They've seen the quality of the food, and how that transitions into how they feel every single day, how their bodies are changing, and ultimately that leads to better performance," Heupel said.

In the weight room, Heupel decided to add more strength and conditioning coaches. Players now work out with their position groups and do position-specific exercises. Quarterback McKenzie Milton said this change has been extremely beneficial because it has allowed him and the other quarterbacks to focus more on shoulder work.

"They focus a lot on stability with the quarterback's shoulders because over time, we can have a lot of wear and tear, so they do a good job with that," said Milton, who has gained five pounds during offseason work. "I feel stronger, and I think it will show in spring ball. It feels like my shoulder won't get fatigued as fast."

In other areas, player input has kept a few things unchanged. Take the offensive playbook, for example. Heupel and Frost share enough offensive concepts that the new staff has adopted the terminology that players already know on the plays they have in common. So in theory, that should allow the offense to hit spring practice, which started Tuesday, with much more familiarity than another program that has completely changed over its staff.

Players also asked whether they could keep playing music at practice. Heupel said yes.

"There's always uneasiness in a transition," Heupel said. "What's the coach really going to be like? He says one thing, is he going to follow through? Is his door really going to be open? So the first week there's uneasiness. There is a lot more comfort the second week, and all of a sudden the buy-in is real easy. I'm two-and-a-half months in, and it feels like I've been here a lot longer than that with the players, so I think that speaks to the time our staff has tried to put in with these players."

In some ways, taking over a successful program is more complicated than taking over a program that needs a drastic overhaul. Most coaches will tell you that maintaining success is easier than rebuilding, and the expectation at UCF is to keep reaching higher.

The question then becomes, how much higher than 13-0?

Nobody on the UCF campus believes that the Knights are done building -- or winning. The expectation is to keep riding the momentum generated last season. Then perhaps more success can help change the narrative about Group of 5 schools and, eventually, get a team like UCF into the College Football Playoff.

That's part of the reason White was so vocal about declaring UCF national champions after its win over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Although his decision drew derision from some who turned their noses at the Knights' parade celebrations, T-shirts and banners, White did get the college football world talking. The trick is to keep the conversation going, and the only way to keep that conversation going is to keep winning.

"You're only as good as your last game," Milton said. "We have the mindset we want to keep getting better, and win our first game, and keep momentum rolling."

Whether going undefeated again will get UCF taken more seriously remains unknown. It worked for Boise State and TCU, to some extent, but neither played in a national championship game. This was before the playoff era. The Knights do have two Power 5 nonconference games on their schedule this year (Pittsburgh, North Carolina), and they'd be best served if both those teams ended up ranked.

Heupel is the last quarterback to lead Oklahoma to an undefeated season, back in 2000. Frost also happens to be the last quarterback to lead Nebraska to an undefeated season, in 1997. If anything, they have an intimate understanding about what it takes not just on the field but also in the locker room to create a culture that breeds yearly success.

"There's a special brotherhood -- love, competitiveness, belief system -- that lives and breathes inside that locker room between 105 guys," Heupel said. "That's the great thing in taking over this program. That exists. They love competing, they love being around each other. And that's the great opportunity for myself and our staff."