Can UCF recapture the attitude that fueled long win streak?

Burrow hangs tough, tosses four TDs in LSU win (2:08)

Joe Burrow perseveres through a physical game and throws four touchdowns in LSU's 40-32 Fiesta Bowl win over UCF. (2:08)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Seconds after UCF cornerback Brandon Moore intercepted Joe Burrow in the first quarter of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl and defensive tackle Joey Connors decleated the LSU quarterback with a vicious block to help spring Jones' 93-yard return for a touchdown, Nate Evans bounded past Burrow, who was still regaining his senses, and the linebacker drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"A selfish act," Evans said after the Knights lost 40-32, snapping the third-longest FBS winning streak of this century at 25 games.

Evans, you see, played Tuesday on an emotional high fueled by his journey from the southern banks of the Mississippi River in Greater New Orleans -- where SEC programs overlooked him out of John Curtis Christian High School -- to first-team all-AAC recognition as a junior at UCF.

"I shouldn't even be on the same field with [LSU players], according to some people," he said.

Evans wasn't alone in how he felt. So, yeah, UCF was fired up to play LSU. And the defeat, the Knights' first since Dec. 17, 2016, left them just as devastated.

UCF had channeled the collective chip on its shoulder over the past two seasons into energy that repeatedly sparked it to victory. Often born from the words of skeptics slow to categorize the Knights alongside the top teams nationally, the power of that emotion ran out in Arizona.

The challenge moving into 2019 under second-year coach Josh Heupel? To recreate such an environment without the motivating factors provided by the winning streak.

"This program's not accustomed to losing," Heupel said. "No one in that locker room has lost in a couple of years. How we handle that in the week before we get back on campus and we first start our offseason, all of those things will speak to who and what we're going to be moving forward.

"I expect the kids to handle it in a great way."

UCF remains one of nine programs to play three times over the past six years in the New Year's Six and BCS group of bowl games. Despite losing just seven seniors listed as offensive or defensive starters in the Fiesta Bowl, though, you can expect a movement to find the next Group of 5 darling in the wake of the Knights' loss to LSU.

Maybe it's Houston, with new coach Dana Holgorsen, Utah State as Gary Andersen returns, Cincinnati, Memphis or Fresno State.

UCF has greased the tracks for all of them, according to athletic director Danny White.

White said he believes the Knights' winning streak and postseason performances against the SEC -- it beat Auburn a year ago -- ultimately will play a key role in earning the Group of 5 leagues a spot in the College Football Playoff.

"It's been a historic run," White said Tuesday. "It'll be a big part of our history. We're such a young place that our history is by and large in front of us. We'll look to build on this success to get to even greater heights as a program."

The Knights' ability to return immediately to national prominence figures to depend in part on the health of star quarterback McKenzie Milton. He suffered a serious knee injury in November and has endured multiple operations on his right leg, with more ahead.

Milton watched the Fiesta Bowl from the sideline at State Farm Stadium with his teammates as freshman Darriel Mack Jr. completed 11 of 30 passes for 97 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Mack was sacked five times and lost a fumble.

LSU held the Knights to 250 yards, nearly 300 below their regular-season average. Still, they managed 32 points -- more than any opponent scored on LSU in four quarters this season. The Tigers won primarily because of their edge at the skill positions. UCF couldn't stop Burrow, who threw for four touchdowns after the pick-six.

With Milton, the Knights might have flipped that advantage. UCF coaches have said they hope for his return in 2019.

"I expect great things from him," running back Adrian Killins Jr. said.

Killins returns after rushing for 715 yards, as does Greg McCrae, who ran for 1,182 and a team-high 10 touchdowns. Top receivers Gabriel Davis, Dredrick Snelson and Tre Nixon are also set to come back for the Knights.

"I think this place is just getting started," senior tight end Michael Colubiale said.

Might the first loss in two years serve the Knights well?

"We definitely needed to have this feeling to make us stronger as a team," Mack said, "stronger as a brotherhood. But to have it happen this way, it's kind of hard -- not being able to get it done when it mattered most."

Heupel, the former Oklahoma QB who coordinated Missouri's offense before taking over at UCF in December 2017, said he loved his team's fight against LSU. It showed the same spirit in the Fiesta Bowl, he said, that defined the Knights during their streak.

That's not about to change, according to the coach.

"That also speaks to how special this group is to be able to do that for 25 straight weeks the last couple of years," Heupel said. "I just appreciate who and what they are. I told them in the locker room, in sports you focus so much on the destination. It's important. We certainly wanted to finish this one off the right way.

"But when you walk away from the destination, it truly is about the journey."

The journey for UCF, apparently, has just begun.