ORLANDO, Florida — Sitting on the outskirts of this sprawling metropolis, the University of Central Florida’s campus features gleaming buildings, an enrollment of 70,000 students, a majestic reflecting pond and, of course, palm trees.

But perhaps the most eye-catching sight is found inside 45,000-seat FBC Mortgage Stadium, home of the Knights football team. 

Emblazoned on the face of the towering press box is a striking message: “2017 National Champions.”

It refers to UCF’s undefeated season five years ago. Under then-coach Scott Frost, UCF finished the regular season 12-0, but despite being the lone unbeaten team in the FBS, the Knights, of the American Athletic Conference, did not receive a bid in the College Football Playoff.

But they went on to defeat Auburn in the Peach Bowl to finish 13-0 — just two years removed from an 0-12 campaign in 2015. 

UCF became the first team in NCAA history to go from winless to perfect in only two years. It was one of the most improbable college football stories in recent history. 

Predictably, UCF players, coaches and fans were incensed about the CFP snub they felt was deserved. 

In a controversial move that was met with plenty of derision — particularly at Alabama, which won the College Football Playoff — at the end of the season, UCF proclaimed itself national champions. Florida lawmakers even passed a resolution declaring the program national champs, which Gov. Rick Scott proclaimed on Jan. 8, 2018. One day later, the Colley Matrix, a mathematically based ranking, ranked UCF No. 1 in its poll. 

Central Florida players celebrate after the Peach Bowl game against Auburn, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta.
Central Florida players celebrate after the Peach Bowl game against Auburn, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. Central Florida won 34-27. | John Bazemore, Associated Press

But the Knights weren’t done. They continued their success by winning 25 consecutive games from August 2017 through September 2019. 

UCF has begun its final season in the AAC, and is poised — along with BYU, Cincinnati and Houston — to join the Big 12 next summer. The Big 12 announced it was expanding one year ago, on Sept. 10. That day, UCF, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston received their Power Five golden tickets. 

Before that happened, current UCF coach Gus Malzahn, who took the helm in 2021, would lament that some big-time recruits would love the campus, the team and the atmosphere but would choose to play elsewhere because of the lack of Power Five designation at UCF. 

“In one fell swoop, you effectively eliminated that,” said John Heisler, UCF’s senior associate athletic director of strategic communications.

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For a school that was founded in 1963 and opened in 1968 as Florida Tech — the school’s original mission was to provide support to the growing U.S. space program at the Kennedy Space Center — and for a school that didn’t start playing football until 1979 — this is quite a moonshot. 

Today, UCF has one of the largest student bodies in the country. The campus is located 13 miles from downtown Orlando and 35 miles west of Cape Canaveral.

Heisler has a wealth of knowledge and a network of longstanding relationships in college football. For 40 years, he promoted Notre Dame. Now, he promotes the Knights. 

“This is one of the youngest universities in the country. Our first year of playing football was not that long ago,” he said. “Even then, we were nowhere near FBS, much less where we’re headed next year (in the Big 12) with BYU, Cincinnati and Houston.”

Heisler marvels at how far UCF has come.

“It’s been a pretty amazing ride in a lot of ways in a relatively short period of time, which a lot of people haven’t realized,” he said. “It’s been the visibility of the football program to a great extent that’s created the exposure that UCF has gotten, particularly over the past decade.” 

UCF and BYU — a potential rivalry?

Though separated by 2,300 miles, BYU and UCF have quite a bit in common — and they could be natural rivals and good partners. Both schools are working hard to prepare for this giant leap to a Power Five conference next season.

Here are just a of the connections and similarities the two programs share:

  • For the last several years, BYU and UCF have viewed themselves as among the best of those programs outside the Power Five. The Cougars not only have a rich, longstanding tradition with a national title and a Heisman Trophy winner, they’ve also posted a 23-4 record since 2020. The Knights are 51-13 since 2017 and they’ve played in the Fiesta Bowl (2014 and 2019) and the Peach Bowl (2018).
  • The Cougars and Knights have met three times in football, twice in the regular season. 

BYU beat UCF in Provo 24-17 during the Cougars’ first year of independence. The Knights won 31-24 in overtime one week after quarterback Taysom Hill’s season-ending injury in 2014. And BYU pounded UCF 49-23 in the 2020 Boca Raton Bowl. 

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson takes a snap against UCF during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

So this series has sown seeds for a potential rivalry.

“It will be great fun to see the rivalries unfold,” Heisler said. 

UCF already has a history with Cincinnati and Houston because all three have been part of the AAC.

  • In 2011, BYU watched Utah join the Pac-12 while it went independent. UCF has long lived in the long shadows cast by traditional in-state college football powers Florida, Florida State and Miami. 

It’s extremely competitive in the Sunshine State, especially among the Power Five programs. 

“In a lot of ways, the UCF fans and alumni think they’re on the same plane as those other institutions,” Heisler said. “That often plays out in terms of social media.”

As evidence of that, UCF beat Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl last year. Most people outside of Florida probably wouldn’t attach much significance to that accomplishment. 

“But I can’t tell you how much that meant to anybody connected with UCF, to beat Florida,” Heisler said. “To beat Florida in anything, for that matter.”

  • Some deride the Cougars’ undefeated season and national championship in 1984, the last time a non-Power Five program won a national title. It’s also considered by some as a controversial national title, just as many scoff at UCF’s self-proclaimed national crown in 2017.
  • BYU’s second-ever bowl appearance was in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando — against current Big 12 member Oklahoma State in 1976.
  • Many Cougar faithful have long been making pilgrimages to Disneyland in California. Now that BYU will be in the same league as UCF, fans will be able to take in a visit to Disney World, which is just 29 miles away from campus. 
  • Just like the reaction in Provo, everyone connected to UCF was “ecstatic,” Heisler said, about the news of the Knights going to the Big 12. 

“In great part because of the football success, they felt like it’s a long time coming,” he added. “Probably could have happened a handful of years ago. The reality was, this turned out to be the timing that worked. Everybody’s generally thrilled about it, even if they don’t know exactly what it means yet.”

No doubt, both UCF and BYU will benefit tremendously from Power Five conference membership. 

Meteoric rise

While BYU officially began playing football a century ago in 1922, when UCF launched its program in 1979, legendary Cougar coach LaVell Edwards was entering his seventh season at the helm. 

But Edwards, who led BYU to the 1984 national championship, does not have a statue in front of the venue — LaVell Edwards Stadium — named after him.

Former UCF coach George O’Leary has a statue in front of FBC Mortgage Stadium after leading the Knights from 2004-15 to seven bowl games and four conference championships, among other accomplishments. 

Signage at FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando touts UCF’s future, which, beginning in 2023 will include membership in the Big 12 Conference. | Jeff Call, Deseret News

Malzahn led Auburn from 2013-20, including three wins over Nick Saban and Alabama. Before being hired, Malzahn viewed UCF as a sleeping giant of sorts. 

“I would tell our staff that if the right guy ever got to UCF and would stay there and would build it, everybody else would be in trouble,” Malzahn has said. “I feel like I’m that right guy. I truly believe that this is a program with a future in college football. The reason I believe that is the foundation has been built with the players that have been here before and the coaches who have been here before. … I’m committed to sticking around here and building this thing and working hard to win a national championship.”

After languishing in the shadows of FSU, Florida and Miami for decades, UCF will soon be validated by membership in the Big 12, which will enhance recruiting. 

“It was big in a lot of ways. It helped us in recruiting. Recruits come on campus, and you can just see the atmosphere around that something really special is about to happen,” Malzahn has said about Power Five membership. “You can kind of feel it, and you can feel it within our players and our staff. I really feel like recruits can sense that. A lot of people like being a part of something, instead of just plugging in to keep something going.”

UCF officials believe the 16 teams in its athletic department are well-positioned to be competitive in the Big 12. Florida is a talent-rich area in all sports. 

But Heisler knows that this is a brand new level for all UCF teams.

“A lot of our programs have had great success — not just beating the in-state teams. But being competitive on a national level and competing for conference championships and going to the NCAAs,” he said. “We only have 16 sports, but we feel like we’re pretty well positioned to be competitive. I say that with the idea that everybody understands you’re taking a big step here.

“The one thing you have to remember is, once everybody gets done celebrating the fact that this is going to happen, there’s a lot of work to do for everybody in terms of making sure you’re well-positioned to have some success. You want to make sure that you can be competitive in all of these sports when you do this.”

Go for launch

UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir has been in Orlando for 18 months, having held a similar position at Arkansas State prior to that. In the 1990s, he was an assistant football coach at Kansas. 

Like Malzahn, Mohajir understands that being competitive in the Big 12 will require efforts from everyone on campus as well as the fan base. 

There are plans, announced about a month before the invitation to join the Big 12, to raise millions of dollars to upgrade the stadium, the current facilities, the coaches’ offices and a recovery center for all UCF athletes. 

The school has recently hired an architect and construction manager to get the project underway. 

UCF has created a “Mission XII initiative” to raise funds for these improvements. Malzahn and his wife, Kristi, donated $250,000 of their own money to the initiative. 

On UCF’s website, the school presents graphics and figures to show how UCF compares to the rest of the Big 12 in terms of operating revenue. 

“If you want to be in the top half of the conference in a particular category, you can see exactly what it takes to accomplish that and where UCF is right now,” Heisler said. “If you want to be in the top three, you can see where that is. If you want to aspire to be the very best of the Big 12, here’s who’s up there right now financially and otherwise to accomplish that.”

Magic Kingdom

Not only will UCF’s membership in the Big 12 benefit the school, but the expanded Big 12 footprint into Florida will be a boon for the league as well. 

The Orlando-Dayton Beach-Melbourne metropolitan area has a population of 1,519,570 — the 18th largest media market in the country and the largest one without an NFL franchise or a Major League Baseball franchise.

While the area does have an NBA team (the Orlando Magic), UCF’s success has resonated in this market. 

“There’s also a sense that for even the period that UCF has been here, we’ve had our ups and downs; we’ve had seasons where we’ve won every game; we’ve had seasons where we’ve lost every game; and a little bit in between,” Heisler said. “I think the people here locally have been maybe more thrilled than they might be normally just because of those ups and downs, to see the national impact that we’ve been able to make in these last four or five years.”

UCF’s football program has only been in existence for 43 years but it now finds itself soon taking a seat at the Power Five table. Fittingly, the school’s official motto is “Reach for the stars.”

Like a lot of things in life, it’s all about timing. 

“We’ve had a short lifespan in all this. As I tell people, you can’t be a one-year wonder. You have to have staying power,” Heisler said. “You’ve got to prove to people that you can compete at a high level year after year. That’s one challenge where we are right now in our last year in the American and it certainly will be a bigger challenge in the Big 12. And it means something different in every sport.

“Football gets the lion’s share of the attention but it means something different in women’s basketball and Lord knows we’re all walking into the most successful basketball league in the country. That will be a huge challenge.”

But UCF, like BYU, is eager to take on this challenge with cautious optimism. The Knights are excited for liftoff into the Big 12, and Power Five, stratosphere.

The 45,000-seat FBC Mortgage Stadium is home of the Central Florida Knights football team. UCF, like BYU, will be joining the Big 12 in 2023. | Jeff Call, Deseret News