Welcome to UCF week.
You may have heard a thing or two about the UCF Knights football program. The program is riding high after its 11-3 season and 10-6 victory over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Even with that historic bowl W and two Conference-USA titles already under their belt, the UCF program is a relative newcomer to the ranks of Division I-A.
Believe it or not, the Knights have only been playing college football of any sort since 1979. A school still widely known as Florida Tech at the time began play at the Division III level on September 2 of that year against St. Leo University. The university president changed the name from Florida Technical University to University of Central Florida around the same time to express the university's expanded academic scope (though personally I think Florida Tech would have been a better choice).
UCF would only play three seasons of Division III football before making the move up to Division II in 1982. After a string of disappointing seasons in Division II, the Knights turned it on in the late 1980s. The Knights earned its first winning season since 1979 with a 6-5 record in 1986, and followed that up with their first ever trip to the Division II playoffs, eventually falling to Troy at the Citrus Bowl.
The Knights spent just eight seasons at the Division II level before again making the jump, this time to Division I-AA in 1990. That year, UCF made the Division I-AA playoffs and were the first program to ever make the playoffs in its first season of eligibility. UCF made the Division I-AA playoffs once more in 1993 before (once again) making the jump to Division I-A in 1996.
The program would remain an independent for the first six years as a member of Division I-A before joining the MAC in 2002. After finishing second in the MAC East Division with a 6-2 record in 2002, the Knights followed that up with an dismal 3-9 season which led to the firing of head coach Mike Kruczek after the first ten games of the season.
George O'Leary, a master's degree holder from a university you've never heard of -- NYU-Stony Brook University -- took over the program in 2004. The Knights would hit bottom in O'Leary's first season, going 0-11 in UCF's final season in the MAC.
The Knights, strapped with increased travel costs and with no natural rivals in the MAC, were exploring the possibility of joining a different conference. UCF would be invited to Conference USA as an all-sports member to start the 2005 season. C-USA was looking to fill the holes left by Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida, who got the call up to Big East, who were replacing Miami, Virginia Tech and ... BC, who moved from the Big East to the ACC. Here's your requisite BC-UCF program tie-in.
After hitting bottom in 2004, O'Leary slowly began to build a winner in Orlando. In UCF's first season in Conference USA, the 8-3 Knights won the East Division before falling to Tulsa in the C-USA title game. The team lost to Nevada in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl, the program's first ever bowl appearance.
O'Leary followed that up with seasons of 4-8 (2006), 10-4 and the first Conference USA title (2007), 4-8 (2008), 8-5 and a second Conference USA title and a 11-3 record last season. Last season culminated with UCF's first ever bowl victory against Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
All-time, the Knights have compiled a 189-174-1 record in the program's 32 seasons of existence. That .521 winning percentage is a bit skewed, however, by 17 season of Division III, II and I-AA football. Since joining Division I-A, the Knights have gone 91-88 (.508), including 36-30 as an Independent, 10-25 in the MAC and 45-33 in Conference USA.
Having supposedly mastered Conference USA, UCF is now looking for the same sort of call up to one of college football's six BCS conferences that former C-USA programs Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida received a few years back. If a conference like the Big East truly wanted to be great in football, they would have already called up O'Leary and the Knights, or so the Bianchi narrative goes. It will be interesting to see how much of a distraction UCF courting the Big East will be for the program going forward, and where the Knights end up.
Given their meteoric rise through the ranks of college football, from Division III all the way to Conference USA, UCF can be seen as a bit of a sleeping giant. The Knights football program enjoys several advantages over the rest of C-USA. UCF's Orlando campus was the second largest public university by enrollment in 2010-11, behind only Arizona State, and they play in a brand new on-campus facility in one of the most talent rich areas of the country. The program has already won 2 Conference USA titles and 3 East Division titles in its first six years in the conference.
Still, it's one thing to dominate Conference USA and it's quite another to prove it at the highest level. Despite all of UCF's success on the gridiron, the program is just 3-46 against BCS conference opponents, including an 1-12 record vs. the ACC and an 0-12 record against the Big East (including an 0-4 record against their I-4 rivals, USF). Plus, as long as UCF is a member of Conference USA, the revenue disparity between the BCS conferences and a conference like C-USA will continue to grow as the next wave of BCS conference TV media rights contracts kicks in.
You can bet the Knights will be amped up to notch their program's first-ever win over an ACC opponent when the Eagles make the return visit to Bright House Networks Stadium on September 10.