Latest Team Rankings
Free Rivals Alerts
|ShopMobileRadio RSSRivals.com Yahoo! Sports|
|College Teams||High Schools|
January 2, 2014
UCF enters offseason with new national respect
ORLANDO, Fla. - UCF began the 2013 football season as an afterthought.
The afterthought is now the new flavor of the month.
With its 52-42 upset of sixth-ranked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, the No. 15 Knights posted their first 12-season in school history to cap a season that has turned into UCF's national coming out party.
What's more, UCF may have finally poked a hole in in-state paradigm perennially dominated by Florida State, Florida and Miami.
"I tell you, we had every big win in the school history this year," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "I think they had resiliency about them. Something you really can't coach. You can coach playing hard, but playing hard when things aren't going well is most difficult. I think they accomplished that."
Entering the season the expectation was that UCF would be just another also-ran in a new, hybrid American Athletic Conference that already included last year's BCS darling Louisville and its preseason Heisman hopeful Teddy Bridgewater.
But after a narrow early-season loss to South Carolina, the Knights upset the then-top 10 ranked Cardinals as part of a nine-game winning streak to end the season.
Running back Storm Johnson, who rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl victory, said the Knights embraced their underdog tag all season.
"It makes it so sweet. Hard work is hard to hide. We tell everybody that," he said. "The sky is the limit. We have been telling people that all year and we just followed through."
Perhaps the biggest part of that UCF's run was junior quarterback and Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP Blake Bortles. In his second year as the Knights' starter, Bortles was the constant in helping his team survive in seven games decided by seven or few points.
Throwing for more than 3,500 yards and 25 touchdowns this season, Bortles' NFL draft rose with every UCF win. With some projections now putting him as potentially one of the first quarterbacks taken should he choose to skip his senior season, what he decides by the Jan. 15 early entry deadline now take takes center stage.
Bortles met with O'Leary in the weeks prior to the bowl game, and O'Leary said the plan was for him to look at an evaluation from NFL personnel before he made a decision.
"I said before the game that I have no idea. I still have no idea," Bortles said. "I can't even begin to contemplate that decision because I am so proud to be part of this journey, this program and this university."
The Knights lose just seven scholarship seniors this offseason. Three of those are starting offensive linemen, but clearly Bortles' decision will have the most impact on them entering 2014.
Both quarterbacks behind Bortles on the Knights roster - Justin Holman and Pete DiNovo - are both freshmen.
Defensively UCF will also undergo some changes following the departure of former defensive coordinator Jim Fleming, who was hired as Rhode Island's head coach.
O'Leary moved quickly on replacing him, though, hiring Paul Ferraro, who was one of O'Leary's assistants from his time at Georgia Tech.
Whatever changes may be on the horizon, for now Bortles said he and his teammates are content enjoying the spoils of an emotional season.
"We believed in ourselves all year. Not many people did but we knew our abilities," Bortles said. "We knew what we could do and we really play well on big stages...That is (what they) thrive on. We showed what we are all about."