ORLANDO, Fla. — Now we get to see what the UCF football program is really made of.
Is it a concrete-block home built on a firm foundation or is it a house of cards that collapses the first time the wind blows in the wrong direction?
“Adversity is not what defines you; how you handle adversity is what defines you,” UCF coach Josh Heupel told me earlier this week, just a couple of days after the devastating second loss of the season at Cincinnati on Friday. “That’s true in football and it’s true in life.”
Heupel is so right. It’s easy for athletes to play hard when they are in the national spotlight and competing for big-time bowl bids. And it’s easy for fans to pack the stadium when their team is unbeaten and blowing the doors off opponents with ESPN’s GameDay in town.
But what now, UCF?
The Knights have lost two games this season and many of their preseason goals have either vanished or are in serious jeopardy. An opportunity to reach the College Football Playoff semifinals is gone (as if it ever existed); the opportunity for a New Year’s Six Access Bowl bid is gone. And it will take Cincinnati losing two games in the American Athletic Conference and UCF running the table for the Knights to get back in contention for a league championship.
Predictably, many of UCF’s skeptics are saying, writing and chanting, “OVER … RATED! OVER … RATED!”
Wrote Dan Wolken, sports columnist of USA Today: “After demolishing Stanford in late September, athletics director Danny White whined about the Knights being ranked No. 16, telling Yahoo! Sports that ‘there has to be some other motivation’ for being slotted in the back half of the top-25. That kind of conspiratorial nonsense plays well with the hard-core fan base but has proved to be overwrought. As it turns out, UCF was overrated if anything.
“The Knights’ status as a thorn in the College Football Playoff committee’s side ended a couple weeks ago with a loss to Pitt, and their two-year domination of the AAC is now over as well after a 27-24 loss to Cincinnati. This isn’t a shot at the Knights, who put together back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons and became a massively important story/lightning rod for college football conversation. But maybe, just maybe, the people who were skeptical that UCF was really on par with the top power conference teams were right after all.”
Personally, I never thought UCF’s program was on par with the tradition-rich programs in the Power 5, but I did think UCF’s McKenzie Milton-quarterbacked individual teams of the last two seasons could have played with anybody in the country on any given Saturday.
But, of course, that’s ancient history.
McKenzie Milton is not walking through that door to save the day.
At least not anytime soon.
And, so, we ask again:
What now, UCF?
What now, UCF players?
What now, UCF coaches?
What now, UCF fans?
Were you just a bright, brief shooting star flashing across the national college football landscape?
Or is the 4-3 record over the last seven games more indicative of who you are?
Will you return to being the dominant, dynamic team of the previous two seasons?
Or will you return to being the inconsistent, up-again, down-again program you’ve been for most of your history?
We will be able to tell a lot in the next few weeks about just how strong and resilient UCF’s program really is. The current players on UCF’s roster aren’t used to losing, nor are many of the fans who have jumped on the bandwagon during the past two seasons.
Will the players prepare as diligently and compete as relentlessly as they did when they were chasing greatness and seeking perfection? Or will they simply go through the motions and fade into oblivion?
“We have to continue to push to get better,” Heupel said. “We’re in a situation where we don’t control our own fate (in the conference), but we do control what we’re going to be about and how the season is going to finish.”
Couldn’t the same be said for the fan base? What will the home crowd be like at UCF’s next home game a week from Saturday against East Carolina? Will attendance in the student section continue to dwindle as it did the week after Pitt ended UCF’s 25-game regular-season unbeaten streak? Will all those fans who sold out UCF’s season-ticket allotment this season continue showing up for games?
It was just a couple of weeks ago when White was having meetings to discuss expanding Spectrum Stadium. Now is when we will find out if stadium expansion is really necessary. You don’t expand stadiums based upon going unbeaten every year; you expand stadiums based upon how your fans turn out during an average season.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. It’s simply not realistic to expect UCF to go unbeaten every single season. Unless you’re Alabama or Clemson, winning nine or 10 games every year and competing for the conference championship should be considered a good season for any program.
The Knights can still finish 10-2 and have an outside chance of winning a conference title.
Shouldn’t that be enough to motivate a team and a fan base?
And, so, we ask one last time:
What now, UCF?
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