Before this season, coach George O'Leary had been on the hot seat at UCF. He had been the head coach since 2004 and compiled a record of 34-41. He had never produced back to back winning seasons. Last year's squad went 8-5 with an appearance in the St. Pete Bowl. So this year was crucial. Could O'Leary produce consecutive winning seasons? Or would it be another roller coaster ride back down to 4-8?
Coming into the season, the Knights were going to have to replace the starting quarterback. That's usually a bad sign for a coach needing to improve over the previous year. Brett Hodges was a solid QB for the Knights a year ago, taking over for Rob Calabrese in week 4. From there the Knights went on a roll and into a bowl game. Calabrese was projected to be the starter this year, which probably did not instill too much confidence.
Then along came a true freshman out of Miami named Jeff Godfrey. Godfrey took over for Calabrese in the second game of the year against North Carolina State. The Knights were down 28-7 when Godfrey took over. He led the Knights on a fourth quarter comeback that fell just a bit short when NC State forced a turnover inside its own 30 in the final UCF drive. THe 'Pack held on for a 28-21 win, but the Knights had found a new star.
Two weeks and a win over Buffalo later, the Knights went to Manhattan, Kansas to take on the Wildcats of Kansas State. The Knights dominated the game statistically and led most of the way. But some bad place kicking and a momentum killing weather delay put the Knights in a late game pickle. The defense was unable to stop K-State's game winning touchdown march and the Knights lost 17-13.
From there, the Knights began conference play 2-2 and won five straight Conference USA games. Impressive wins on ESPN over UAB, who had just taken Tennessee to double overtime before the Knights pummelled them 42-7, and Marshall, in a game where they had to overcome another lightning delay, had put UCF in a position to think about a Conference Championship.
A showdown between two unbeaten teams in conference play between East Carolina and UCF in Orlando lived up to its billing. It was a shootout in the Sunshine State. UCF scored on every possession in the first half, most of them coming quickly. At halftime the score was UCF 35, ECU 21. The Knights then took a commanding 48-28 lead with about ten minutes to go and held on to withstand a late ECU rally for a 48-35 win.
Then it was on to Houston. Another nationally televised game on ESPN against a team the Knights would likely face in the C-USA title game was going to be a battle. Another offensive shootout in which the Knights had to hang on for dear life at the end saw them win 40-33 and get ranked in the top 25 for the first time in school history.
As you may expect, the Knights fell into a trap game the following week. Southern Miss came to town and after UCF jumped out of the gate red hot to take an early 14-0 lead, the Eagles then took over. They dominated the rest of the game to beat the Knights 31-21. UCF was then left with two road games that they had to win to host the Conference USA Championship Game. A slip up in one of them and they would likely not even play in the title game.
Who will win the Liberty Bowl?
The first of these road games was in New Orleans against an improving Tulane team that had a win over Rutgers on its resume. The Knights had no problem with the Green Wave, however, winning in a rout. That left Memphis. In the stadium the Knights were hoping to get back to for the Liberty Bowl, the Knights were dominant against the Tigers, winning 37-17 and securing home field advantage for the C-USA Championship Game against SMU.
In a game many expected to be another offensive shootout, the Knights instead used an effective ground attack, eating up the clock and keeping the defense fresh. The defense shut the Mustangs down for most of the game, only giving up a late TD, to win 17-7.
With the win, O'Leary improved his UCF record to 44-44, reaching the .500 mark for the first time. He is now four wins shy of 100 for his career. And more importantly, he is off the hot seat in Orlando. In fact, O'Leary has been at his job longer than any other coach in Florida other than Howard Schnellenberger at FAU. This should help in recruiting when UCF can point out that its coach can be counted on to still be there for all four years.
A Liberty Bowl date with Georgia awaits the Knights on December 31. A win in that game would be the biggest in school history. It would be even bigger than the basketball team's win over Florida a few weeks ago. And it would make UCF perhaps the most attractive non automatic qualifier school when the big boys look to expand.
UCF, with its fine football season and an undefeated basketball season so far, is indeed an up and coming power on the college sports landscape. And O'Leary deserves a lot of the credit.