Why college football's 2017 'national champions' continue to roll

Yahoo Sports

NEWPORT, R.I. – The remarkable moment that symbolizes just how much potential surrounds the UCF football program came at the most unremarkable time during Josh Heupel’s debut season.

As the Knights whipsawed through spring practice No. 3. at their trademark frenetic pace, Heupel looked around the field. UCF had 175 high school recruits on campus, 35 of whom were good enough to earn offers from the Knights.

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The moment stuck with Heupel, as that number of talented players would be a significant showing for a junior day, spring game or a rivalry game at most schools. But at UCF, on a random weekday night, the talent on hand spoke volumes about the school’s boundless football program.

“That’s the first time I knew it was completely different,” Heupel told Yahoo Sports at American Athletic Conference media days. “It wasn’t a big event. This was just another day at the office for us. It’s completely different than anywhere I’ve been on the recruiting side.”

The image is a fitting one, as UCF has harnessed as much momentum as any program in college football not named Clemson the past two seasons. Through their undefeated “national championship” season under Scott Frost in 2017, back-to-back AAC championships and a 25-game winning streak, UCF has revealed the full throes of its potential.

Central Florida head coach Josh Heupel watches from the sideline during a 2018 game against Cincinnati. (AP)
Central Florida head coach Josh Heupel watches from the sideline during a 2018 game against Cincinnati. (AP)

While a loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl and the catastrophic injury to quarterback McKenzie Milton have led to fewer headlines and less SEC-inspired vitriol from the Finebaum wind tunnel this offseason, UCF is still streaking beyond its peers in the Group of Five.

“We’re going to build a monster in Orlando at UCF, and we’re going to be a major player in college football,” UCF athletic director Danny White said in a phone interview this week. “Whatever college football looks like.”

UCF’s 25-game win streak was snapped on Jan. 1, and the fact that it was so widely celebrated was perhaps the highest compliment to the caliber of the program’s emergence as a high-end provocateur. To grasp how far UCF has streaked the past two seasons, consider their previous loss came to Arkansas State, 31-13, in December of 2016. Hardly anyone outside Jonesboro, Arkansas, rejoiced as the Knights finished 6-7 in Scott Frost’s first season.

Since that point, UCF averaged more than 47 points per game, beat four ranked teams and delivered a signature victory by depantsing Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Along that sun-kissed ride, an identity emerged of a program with electric tempo, high-end athletes and a raucous home environment – aka the Bounce House – playing host. UCF had prior success, including beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2013 season, but it’d never managed to simultaneously forge such an indelible identity on and off the field. “I don’t think there’s any question,” said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, “that UCF is cemented as a national brand.”

Perhaps the most under-appreciated part in UCF’s run is that Heupel continued it seamlessly last season. He went 12-0 in the regular season, won the conference championship and lost a one-score game to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl in the wake of the catastrophic injury to star quarterback McKenzie Milton. “I think the job he took over was one of the hardest in the history of college football,” White said.

Heupel is a plain-spoken son of a coach from South Dakota, more sensible than flashy and trends toward pragmatic over promotion. But he’s quickly come to appreciate the power and potential at UCF: “Everything is in place here to be everything that you want it to be.”

Any conversation with a UCF official or coach doubles as a local chamber of commerce pep talk. White mentioned that Orlando is the largest city in the country without an NFL team and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country in terms of population and job growth. UCF is also one of the fasting growing universities in the country. All that growth, combined with the surrounding talent that Heupel found at spring practice No. 3, also allows UCF to lead the country in athletic department optimism. “To me,” Heupel said, “it’s inevitable that we become a top 10, top 15 collegiate athletic program.”

UCF's Michael Colubiale (86) reacts to McKenzie Milton's injury against South Florida in November. (Getty)
UCF's Michael Colubiale (86) reacts to McKenzie Milton's injury against South Florida in November. (Getty)

The identity of the Knights will shift some this season, as Milton’s injury will keep him off the field and his replacement last season, Darriel Mack Jr., broke his ankle last week and is out indefinitely. The gruesome nature of Milton’s injury made it one of the most indelible plays of the 2018 college football season. Heupel was optimistic about the status of Milton’s eventual comeback.

“There’s still things that he’s got to get back to make it all the way back,” Heupel said. “I really do believe he’s going to play again and play at the same level, if not better, than he already was.”

For now, that means that Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush will be the favorite to start, though Heupel stressed there’s competition with reserves Quadry Jones and true freshman Dillon Gabriel. While Milton’s brilliance – 92 total touchdowns in three seasons – helped him emerge as the face of UCF, that may shift to star tailback Greg McCrae. He averaged 8.9 yards per carry, scored 11 touchdowns and finished with 1,183 yards.

Heupel won over his team last season, in part, by merging his Baylor-lineage up-tempo scheme with Scott Frost’s Oregon-inspired scheme. Both moved quick, and Heupel adopted some of the old verbiage – using the word “TAG” for a guard/center block instead of his preferred “GUT” – to show the players he respected their success the previous season and wanted to build off it.

Can UCF keep its scintillating pace going without Milton? There’s a contingent around the league that believe UCF relied so much on Milton that it can’t keep up its blistering pace. “We love it when people say things like that,” said junior receiver Gabriel Davis, “just to shut them up.”

If UCF manages to shut up the skeptics for a third straight year, people will keep talking about one of college football’s buzziest programs. And as a program surrounded by talented evolves into one filled with it, UCF will find itself continuing to streak away from its peers.

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