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UCF Football’s Climb Was Never Going to Be Easy

Football’s first Big 12 season revealed how far the program has come and how far it needs to go

Photo: Derek Warden

The UCF Knights’ 2023 football season is over. The Knights’ first season in the Big 12 ended up at 6-7 following the bowl loss to Georgia Tech. The reaction on social media was, predictably, mostly negative.

The end result of the program’s first sub-.500 season since Scott Frost’s first season in 2016 is disappointing on its surface, though it should not be entirely surprising.

Consider the only two teams that have made the move from a non-A5 conference to an A5 conference, Utah and TCU (Rutgers and Louisville notwithstanding since the AAC had an AQ tag when they were in the league). In both cases, it took at least a few seasons for them to realistically compete for a conference championship.

Let’s start with one of UCF’s Big 12 mates:

TCU

Prior to joining the Big 12, the Horned Frogs spent seven seasons in the Mountain West (2005-2011), and won double-digit games every year there except once (2007, 8-5). With Gary Patterson at the helm, they went to bowl games all seven seasons, including two BCS bowls, had one undefeated season in 2010, and a 17-10 loss to fellow unbeaten Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl was the lone blemish on their 2011 campaign. In all, the Frogs had four MWC titles, four top-ten finishes, and won 47 of their last 52 games in the four years before making the jump.

Patterson stayed on and saw the fruits of his labor bloom in the program’s third year in the Big 12:

TCU’s First Three Seasons in the Big 12

Season Record Conf Record Place AP Rank Bowl Notes
Season Record Conf Record Place AP Rank Bowl Notes
2012 7-6 4-5 T-5th -- Lost Started 5-1, lost 5 of last 7, three losses by one score including 17-16 bowl loss to Michigan St.
2013 4-8 2-7 T-7th -- DNQ Started 3-3, lost 5 of last 6, 4 Big 12 losses were by 3 points or less
2014 12-1 8-1 T-1st 3 Won Only loss was at Big 12 Champion #7 Baylor 61-58, won Peach Bowl (NY6)

Since joining the Big 12, it’s been bumpy, with incredible highs (two Big 12 titles, three Big 12 Championship appearances, four AP Top Tens and a CFP National Championship appearance in 2022), and some middling lows (eight seasons with 7 wins or fewer, five sub-.500 seasons), including this season, the second under Sonny Dykes since Patterson retired.

So we have a lot of seasons similar to this last one for UCF — around .500, some close games that didn’t go their way, but they scored on some key recruiting classes that caught the breaks and put together some magical seasons. On average, once every four seasons, TCU would challenge for the Big 12 title and make a major bowl.

Now let’s look at the only other A5 jumper until this past year.

Utah

No program in the non-A5 was more prepared for the jump to the A5 than Utah. They had an established record of success before moving to the Pac-12, including five 10-win campaigns, three Mountain West titles, two undefeated seasons and two BCS Bowl wins in the previous eight years before making the jump.

Utah is also the largest public school in its state, just like UCF, and so I’d consider them to be the closest analog to the Knights’ program.

Also under the same head coach, Kyle Whittingham, it took Utah until its fifth season before it could hang a conference banner as co-champions of the Pac-12 South:

Utah’s First Five Seasons in the Pac-12

Season Record Conf Record Place AP Rank Bowl FB Budget* Notes
Season Record Conf Record Place AP Rank Bowl FB Budget* Notes
2011 8-5 4-5 3rd -- Won $14,191,950 Finished one game behind division Champ UCLA (USC DNQ due to sanctions)
2012 5-7 3-6 5th -- DNQ $18,544,972 Started 2-5, lost first four Pac-12 games
2013 5-7 2-7 5th -- DNQ $18,227,540 Lost 5 straight Pac-12 games (4 on road) after 4-2 start
2014 9-4 5-4 5th 21 Won $18,384,767 One of five Pac-12 South teams to finish ranked (2-2 vs. those teams), two losses by 3 points or less
2015 10-3 6-3 T-1st 17 Won $21,513,268 Missed Pac-12 Championship by virtue of loss to USC
* Football budget data are adjusted for inflation Source: Knight Newhouse College Athletics Database

Utah also saw its football budget increase by 62% from its last year in the Mountain West to the year the Utes won a share of the division title. It should also be noted that Utah did not get back to a New Year’s Six Bowl until 2021.

Note also that Utah, being a public school, discloses its football budget while TCU, a private school, doesn’t.

Either way, again, over 13 seasons since moving up, Utah has averaged one conference title challenge every four seasons. They’ve won the Pac-12 Championship twice in four tries and won 10 or more games four times.

The Grind

Winning in college football is hard. More teams go to bowl games than there are teams that finish above .500. The margins for error are razor-sharp these days — Consider how UCF lost three games this year in the Big 12 by just four combined points.

But even so, expecting to compete for a conference title right off the bat is just not realistic. The quality of play is drastically better than it was in The American. Exactly how much better is something we saw this year, and it came in the

The best argument I heard for UCF’s difficulty in adjusting to the Big 12 was that the week-to-week grind wears down teams’ depth, and the quality of that depth is what teams like UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati were just not able to recruit in a conference like The American.

That bore itself out in several of UCF’s results this season. In seven games — six in conference — UCF had a lead but couldn’t close the deal:

UCF Football 2023 Blown Leads

Opponent Lead Quarter Result Final Score
Opponent Lead Quarter Result Final Score
Boise State 15-10 Q4 Win 18-16
Kansas State 24-21 Q3 Loss 44-31
Baylor 35-7 Q3 Loss 36-35
Oklahoma 23-17 Q4 Loss 31-29
West Virginia 21-24* Q4 Loss 41-28
Cincinnati 14-3 Q2 Win 28-26
Texas Tech 14-0 Q2 Loss 24-23
Georgia Tech 17-3 Q2 Loss 30-17
* UCF never led but had the ball down three late in the 3rd before a turnover

Note also how UCF never led West Virginia but kept it close until the Mountaineers put UCF away in the fourth.

Now, it’s easy to say that these were just failures of execution, but execution tends to wane when you’re tired and getting beaten up by larger guys for three hours. That’s where depth comes in.

That’s not to say UCF’s roster did not have Big 12 quality players. Obviously they did. But there weren’t enough of them, and as the season went on, injuries on all sides of the ball took their toll. And that often made the difference in being able to close out and not.

So what now?

Gus Malzahn coached in the SEC West for eight seasons and never had a sub-.500 campaign. In fact, 2023 was the first time Gus lost more games than he won in his entire college coaching career. It’s obvious that the reason for that was the level-up.

Gus also knew this would happen. That’s why UCF’s recruiting has stepped up dramatically. Key to that is the signing of QB KJ Jefferson, who introduces a level of physicality at the QB position that UCF has not had arguably since Daunte Culpepper.

That’s the splashy get. The real work, as Kyle Nash would say, is getting The Beef: Offensive and Defensive Line.

According to Rivals, UCF’s recruiting went from 50th in the nation in 2023 to 32nd in 2024. Part of that is two 300-pound offensive lineman, including a four-star, and a 6-5 defensive tackle, and that’s on top of three four-star DLs from a year ago.

A battering ram with an arm like Jefferson can help cover up some of the flaws of a growing front on both sides of the ball at least in the short term. With more on order in recruiting and the Transfer Portal yet to be tapped, the long-term pipeline for line play is still coming together. That’s where Malzahn Magic can make its mark.

The wild card in all of this is what UCF cannot control: The Big 12 itself.

The New Realignment Reality

With Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah joining the league — and I use that term on purpose — in 2024, that presents its own challenges in trying to reach the top two. And given how the ACC might work out in the next few years or so, if Brett Yormark has anything to say about that, then all bets are off.

Another factor: The 12-team Playoff. While there’s more margin for error with 12 instead of four spots, we have yet to see how this will shake out with the committee’s preferences. I personally think it’s likely the Big 12 will get both its championship game participants in every year, plus another team pending its record and head-to-head play, among other factors. But we just don’t know.

The bottom line is this: This was never going to be easy. Making the leap to the Big 12 is the steepest conference jump UCF has ever made — greater than from the Independent ranks to the MAC, MAC to C-USA, or from C-USA to the Big East/American. In fact, it’s a greater leap than all of those combined.

Here’s something to remember though: In each of those three previous moves, we never had to grind to get to the top. Not once!

  • MAC Year 1: 2002. 7-5, 6-2 in conference. We were one TD in four possessions inside plus territory at Marshall from winning the MAC East and being guaranteed at least the first bowl game in school history.
  • C-USA Year 1: 2005. 8-5, 7-1 in conference. Won the East Division and hosted the C-USA Championship. Frickin’ Tulsa.
  • AAC Year 1: 2013. 12-1, 8-0 in conference, won the league and the Fiesta Bowl vs. Baylor. Top 10 finish.

Mind you this year we came off a 2022 season where we played for the conference championship again. That should show you what we’re dealing with here. This ain’t an Instant Pot recipe. It’s a low-and-slow overnight smoke and we just laid the brisket in the smoker.

But the program is committed to competing. The fan base demands it, the donors demand it, and the students expect it. So now comes the real grind over the next five years or so.

FILES-ENTERTAINMENT-US-FILM-OSCARS-CLIMBING
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park
Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

As a fan, I believe we will get there. When, I don’t know. But I do know this: Climbing El Capitan is a lot more personally rewarding than climbing Sugarloaf Mountain (not that I’d know — I don’t). It won’t happen tomorrow. But the further you have to go to get to the top, the sweeter it feels when you get there.

As renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker once said, “The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters.”

So let’s embrace the challenge, gear up, and enjoy the climb.