Recent Success Creates Heady Times for UCF

ORLANDO ( - And, so, it begins again at UCF.


It’s year number two under head football coach Josh Heupel -- and the Knights already are predicted as the American Athletic Conference front-runner for 2019.


One recognized season-preview magazine has UCF playing Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Another says it will be the Knights and Florida in the Orange Bowl. A third suggests a rematch between the Knights and LSU in Dallas. Heady stuff, indeed, for a program that didn’t have any logical reason for those sorts of aspirations not all that many seasons in the rear-view mirror.


Sure, no one is ready to anoint a starting quarterback for the fall as yet. (Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush? Incoming freshman Dillon Gabriel? How about local product Quadry Jones?) And graduation always provides gaps to be filled. (The Knights have worked hard to rebuild their defensive line)


Still, UCF vice president and director of athletics Danny White has gone out of his way in the offseason to suggest that the performance of Heupel and his first UCF team—in Heupel’s initial year as a head coach anywhere, in case that part has been forgotten—should be viewed as something remarkable.


If UCF’s storybook 13-0 2017 campaign was the stuff of legends on the Orlando campus, the Knights’ follow-up in 2018 wasn’t far behind: Twelve straight-regular season victories to open, ending in an eight-point loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.


Breathe in that rare air once again: 25 straight wins over the course of those two seasons. Notre Dame has never done that in its storied history. Neither have Ohio State, Penn State and Georgia, all of those teams ranking in the top 10 in all-time winning percentage.  


A program that thinks it can win every week still has to make it happen day to day. No wonder Heupel noted today at UCF media day that he continues to hear and echo his “go 1-0 every week” mantra every single day in the Knights’ football building. Even the most ardent fans wearing black and gold are jazzed to see if their team can really keep up this pace.


More good things are happening around Heupel’s program:

--In the offseason, the Knights impressively rebuilt their football strength and conditioning area.

--UCF season-ticket sales are at an all-time high, suggesting empty seats will be rare this fall at Spectrum Stadium. No one appreciates that more than Heupel, given both his playing and coaching experience at a place like Oklahoma.

--Heupel even saw his name appear on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot from his quarterback-playing days in Norman.


Yes, more heady stuff. Think what the vibe would be if all-star quarterback McKenzie Milton was healthy this fall instead of watching from the sidelines after his late-season injury in 2018 – not to mention the more recent injury loss of Darriel Mack Jr. that, at least temporarily, has removed him from the current quarterback derby.


Coaches like Heupel will lose their share of sleep from one Saturday to the next—whether it’s perennial Pac-12 power Stanford in September, 11-win Cincinnati on the road in October, Houston under new coach Dana Holgorsen in November, or any other 2019 foes.


Yet, imagine the comfort level for the Knights—both coaches and players—compared to a year ago. Heupel has run out of ways to explain that aspect—even if it guarantees nothing beginning Aug. 29 when the season actually begins.


UCF’s head coach, if nothing else, is confident his players understand what playing at a championship level is all about. Even that single defeat in Glendale, Arizona, proved a valuable lesson learned on multiple fronts.


Count on Richie Grant, Jordan Johnson, Gabriel Davis and the rest of the Knights to understand the target on their backs that comes with that recent success. They’re looking forward to defending their AAC crown (two in a row) and battling for another New Year’s Six slot.


And in that very short window of time, that’s exactly what UCF fans have come to expect, too.


Stay tuned.


John Heisler is the senior associate athletics director for strategic communications at UCF and has worked in the college athletic communications business for more than four decades.