The 2023-24 UCF Knights Athletics season is underway, and in honor of UCF’s accession into the Big 12 Conference, we will present our version of 12 for 12. For the next 12 days, we will tackle what we think are the 12 biggest questions facing UCF Athletics in the coming year across all sports.
Next up is a question that has both the interest of the fans and the competitive attention of all
11. Which team has the best shot at winning UCF’s first Big 12 championship?
Jeff: Women’s Soccer
They’re already 24th in the nation in the preseason United Soccer Coaches’ Poll and this program has been familiar with the concept of national contention for a while — I’d argue at least going back to the Michelle Akers days. The competition curve is probably the least steep for them among all other programs.
Remember: The AAC slate typically hurt UCF’s national RPI in years past. Now that’s not the case. Last season UCF finished 20th in the RPI, and only one current Big 12 program — TCU — finished ahead of them, and that was by one spot.
Also, kids want to play for Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak. Her reputation as a USWNT legend (and current member of the staff) is firmly established and that will continue to aid in recruiting. Before, the thought was, “Yeah, she’s a legend, but they play in the American.” Now it’s, “Yeah, she’s a legend, and they’re also in the Big 12.” That matters, and could really matter as soon as a couple of months from now if things break their way.
Bryson: Women’s Golf
Predicting conference golf titles can be rather tricky since, by its nature, a team could have an odd great or bad week depending on course conditions.
However, I think this UCF Women’s Golf team has made roster additions that can give them a shot at the Big 12 title this spring.
Tunrada “Pat” Piddon, one of the best golfers in program history by scoring average, is back for one last ride. Returning with her are fellow Thai native Pimpisa “Sandwich” Sisutham, who shined last season as a freshman, and 2022 Women’s Amateur Champion Jess Baker gained momentum in the late stages of last season to finish in the Top 10 individually in the team’s final four tournaments (including the NCAA Regional).
Additionally, Katie Poots and Molly Smith have each had productive summers that showcase potential for freshman phenoms and Brittany Shin adds some more experience to the team as a grad transfer from Oregon.
I’ll be that guy: I think Football can with it this year. The consensus seems to be that the Knights will finish in the middle of the conference but with enough wins to be bowl-eligible. I think those lowered expectations will allow UCF to sneak into the conference title game and steal the trophy.
Here are a few reasons why I think this can happen (or why we could miss a bowl game completely):
- Expectations: As I already mentioned, lowered expectations could cause other Big 12 teams to sleep on the Knights.
- New Offensive & Defensive Coordinators: New OC Darin Hinshaw has plenty of experience in this role, but never with a QB as athletic as John Rhys Plumlee. If Hinshaw has been able to work with Plumlee on his decision-making and footwork, then the sky is the limit for the offense. First-time DC Addison Williams brings a fresh perspective to the defensive side of the ball, which means that other B12 coaches haven’t had film to study his tendencies and calls this offseason. (The negative to all this: Hinshaw is asking Plumlee to take off and run less while installing a more vertical passing attack than JRP had last year, and there’s no guarantee that when the stadium lights come on, there will be an improvement. DC Williams is still an unproven commodity as a play-caller. Expectations are high for him, but we won’t know how good he can be until we hit the conference portion of the schedule)
- Upperclassmen-heavy roster: There are more than 30 senior and older players with a real shot at making the two-deep roster. That’s a lot of experience. But, with at least 20 being transfer-portal additions, can that experience gel into cohesive offensive and defensive units?
- CEO Gus: With the hiring of Darin Hinshaw as Offensive Coordinator/QB coach, Head Coach Gus Malzahn finally relinquished offensive play-calling duties. Instead, he has taken on a more CEO-type role in the program, which allows him to focus more on recruiting, working with the Kingdom NIL, etc.
Take all of this with a huge grain of salt. It requires a lot of unknown variables to fall the right way, and only one to lean another for it all to come crashing down.
Football is the sport UCF puts the most resources into and it would only make sense that it will be the first that gets up to par in Big 12 competition. The Knights have already proven to be a top team in the AAC, which was a primary reason they’re in the Big 12 to begin with.
With the bulk of NIL and one of the best local talent pools in the nation, it is no surprise the 2024 recruiting class is doing so well. Add another strong class in 2025 and some portal help to fill in the gaps and you could have a title contender very quickly. Even in 2023, this team, as long as they stay healthy, can surprise the conference and be a dark horse contender right out of the gate.
What set this up is the realization that the college sports landscape has changed and head coach Gus Malzahn has embraced the need to play a more executive role instead of dealing with the minutia of running his offense. This couldn’t have been an easy decision to make considering how much he enjoys it, but the struggle to balance it all was becoming too much.