The past week has been an unbelievable roller coaster for the UCF Knights Football Program. Rumors of Scott Frost’s departure for Nebraska continued to mount on the eve of the AAC Championship Game against the Memphis Tigers. Following a thrilling victory in double overtime, the rumors became reality and the Knights were without a coach as they were extended an invitation to the Peach Bowl to play the Auburn Tigers on New Year’s Day. Despite what looked like a shaky situation, all signs point to UCF being able to continue their momentum and taking the next step as a football program.
As far as Group of 5 Programs, UCF has been one of the best programs since 2007. Thanks to Saturday’s AAC Championship game win over Memphis, UCF will earn their second trip to a New Year’s Six/BCS Bowl since 2013. UCF is the only Group of 5 program with that distinction. The Knights are one of 15 FBS teams since 2013 to play in multiple New Year’s/BCS Bowl Games.
Teams to Play in Multiple New Year’s Six/BCS Bowls Since 2013
5 Ohio State
4 Florida State
3 Michigan State
2 Penn State
2 Ole Miss
That’s a pretty special group of storied, big-time college football programs that UCF is a member of as well. From 2007-2016, the Knights have won 10+ games four times, played in seven bowl games while winning three. That’s a pretty good span of success over a ten-year span. Now insert a historic, undefeated 2017 season as the highest scoring team in the nation.
It’s been a storybook season minus the cloud of Scott Frost to Nebraska rumors that grew darker through November until becoming reality this past weekend. The news broke that Frost would be accepting the Nebraska job during overtime of UCF’s thrilling 62-55 win over Memphis.
Under normal circumstances, a fan base would be completely elated to celebrate their third conference title in five years. But this was not a normal circumstance. As much as fans were cheering, the mood in the stadium turned bittersweet as the video board focused on Frost, who was clearly trying to hold back his emotions. During this sequence, he exchanged a few words with outgoing UCF President, Dr. John Hitt in what I imagine Dr. Hitt was taking the time to express his appreciation for what Scott Frost did for the football program in such a short period of time.
By applying logic, Scott Frost cannot be faulted for taking the opportunity to return home to Nebraska to coach his alma mater. It’s a dream job. And while we found out in a story on Monday that the decision was much tougher than anyone thought it would be, Frost did what we expected by accepting the job to become the Cornhuskers next Head Coach.
Despite UCF fans being able to understand and accept Frost’s departure after only two seasons, it’s hard not to still be disappointed. For years I watched big-time Power 5 programs poach successful coaches from Group of 5 programs. It’s an unconscionable system that takes a coach from his team, usually before the big bowl game that getting to was the major goal of the season.
On top of that, it leaves the team in purgatory before the unavoidable process of starting over with a new coach, culture, and class of incoming players. It’s nearly impossible for a good Group of 5 program to sustain success due to inevitable departure of the coach for a bigger job with more money and resources.
Naturally, it’s easy for UCF fans to feel uneasy about the near future. In a way, it’s a Catch-22 because if the best case scenario occurs and UCF comes back strong, what is standing in the way of this process repeating itself within the next couple years? That’s a fair question.
The head coaching job was vacant for less than 72 hours as UCF announced the hiring of Josh Heupel, former Missouri offensive coordinator Monday afternoon. Heupel draws multiple similarities to Scott Frost. Both are former National Championship winning quarterbacks from the Big 12 who served as successful OC’s of major programs before taking the reins at UCF.
UCF athletic director Danny White deserves a lot of credit for not just acting quickly following Frost’s departure, but for working in a $10 million buyout into Heupel’s contract. Clearly White wanted to make a hire that appears to be a seamless transition on paper while doing what he can to prevent another quick exit (Frost’s buyout was $3 million).
UCF fans should be just as excited about the hiring of defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. Shannon recently held the same title with the University of Florida. In addition to Shannon’s credentials as a defensive coach, his recruiting connections to Miami, a historically talent-rich area cannot be understated.
The program has the right people in place to build off the momentum from this historic season. Former head coach George O’Leary did a tremendous job putting UCF on the map in from the mid-2000s before stepping down in 2015. Scott Frost became the first coach to take an 0-12 team to a bowl the following season in 2016, before following up with a 12-0 campaign this season. Now the program is in the hands of a well-respected coaching staff with great recruiting ties.
UCF may still be in the Group of 5, which can certainly be limiting considering their media revenue is roughly 10% of their Power 5 counterparts. Given what UCF has accomplished over the past decade, the size of the university, tv market and upgraded facilities, I have to think their time outside the Power 5 is limited.
It may not be until the early 2020’s until the realignment discussion creeps up again, as the end of the major TV deals draw close. At this rate, there is no question UCF will be one of the most attractive candidates to make the move to a conference like the ACC, SEC or Big 12. And based on what they have been able to accomplish with very limited resources in comparison to major in-state programs like Florida, Florid, and Miami, the sky’s the limit for what UCF can be once they finally get a seat at the table.