UCF Knights head coach Josh Heupel said his team’s locker room following a 28-point victory over Georgia Tech on Saturday was “the best locker room I’ve been in. Just guys so excited.”
There was plenty to be excited about. Another blowout victory over a Power 5 program? Check.
More than 600 yards of offense? Check.
Five takeaways from the defense? Check.
More than anything, however, the excitement wasn’t rooted in stats or personal performances or even the 49-21 final score. The excitement could be largely attributed to one thing:
College football players finally got to play college football.
“Just happy that they got to do what they love to do today,” Heupel said after the game. “None of them took it for granted. They love one another. It’s something I’ll remember forever.”
In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s season opener, UCF players talked about how much they were looking forward to getting after it on the field after a spring and summer when they didn’t know if or when they would be able to play.
“Four months ago, if you asked me, ‘Are you playing football?’ I would have told you no,” safety Richie Grant said Saturday. “... But the fact that we’re able to be here right now is a blessing.”
Forget about months of uncertainty; UCF truly didn’t know for sure it would be taking the field in Atlanta until 9:30 Saturday morning. That’s when the Knights received the all-clear from their most recent round of COVID tests.
“Really proud of them being smart, taking care of themselves and taking care of our football family at the same time,” Heupel said. “At the same time, you can’t take it for granted.”
For Grant specifically, he pondered during the quarantine months if he should just start preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft. He wanted to see how the NCAA would help him and other senior student-athletes in the event of a canceled or postponed football season and was relieved when the D1 Council decided last month to give everyone an extra year of eligibility.
“The NCAA ended up being so gracious with the decision they made, being able to let everybody come back,” Grant said.
You could sense gratitude as the Knights talked about Saturday’s blowout. That’s probably because they understand the figurative tightrope they are trying to traverse each week prior to game day.
Or as Heupel said Saturday night: “One interaction can change the course of our program.”
Examples of that statement can be found inside the American Athletic Conference. COVID concerns within the Memphis football program were behind the postponement of the Tigers’ game versus Houston on Sept. 18 and the cancellation of this weekend’s tilt versus the University of Texas at San Antonio. That means Memphis is currently scheduled to next play Oct. 3, 28 days after its most recent game.
Meanwhile, Houston quickly picked up a meeting with Baylor to fill the hole that Memphis left in its slate. That game was supposed to be played this past Saturday, but it wasn’t. You already know why.
The same fate didn’t befall the Knights (or the Yellow Jackets) this past weekend, fortunately.
“I’m just happy I can play football,” wide receiver Marlon Williams said after the game. “Happy I can be out there on the field with my brothers.”
The players and coaches didn’t take that time for granted, and we as fans shouldn’t either. I don’t want that sentence to sound accusatory; it is only a kind reminder, a point of emphasis. Everything can change in an instant. If we should view every day as a gift, football fans should view every game in the same respect. The Knights’ locker room looked like a raucous scene Saturday night, and that elation wasn’t just about one triumph over a P5 squad.
UCF is going to win more games in convincing fashion this season, and we should celebrate those (in a safe, socially distant manner) every time. But every Knights victory should be the source of two weekly celebrations: One for when the game ends and another for when the game begins. Just getting to that point is a W in its own right this season.
In between those two points, savor it all.
“Nothing’s the same besides the 60 minutes on the football field,” Heupel said.