Gus Malzahn Lands the Rare Mix of High Expectations and Realistic Upside at UCF

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2021

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn during the first half of the Outback Bowl NCAA college football game against Minnesota Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Gus Malzahn has secured one of the best jobs in college football.

Now at UCF, the former Auburn boss assumes control of a program that has fielded teams ranging from respectable to highly competitive for the last decade-plus.

Since 2007, the Knights have won six conference titles. Four years removed from a mythical national championship and three from a second straight undefeated regular season, UCF has also posted a 16-7 record during the last two years. The recent success has created real expectations within the fanbase.

UCF is among the premier programs in the AAC, a league that campaigns for "Power Six" recognition. Plus, if there's ever another wave of realignment, UCF will garner legitimate interest.

Along with its location in the recruiting hotbed of Florida, that's in no small part because of the school's spending on facilities and coaches. Last year, per USA Today, then-head coach Josh Heupel earned $2.3 millionone spot behind Wake Forest's Dave Clawson and one ahead of Oregon State's Jonathan Smith. Malzahn, too, will earn $2.3 million annually.

In short, Malzahn has a readymade winner with supporters who expect success. The best-case scenario is a promotion to power-conference affiliation, and the worst-case scenario is being a well-supported big fish in the Group of Five pond.

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Yet, in theory, UCF has brushed its ceiling.

Neither the Knights' prior undefeated years nor Cincinnati's 9-0 record in 2020 cracked the College Football Playoff barrier. Given that reality, no reasonable person can label a national title a justifiable goal for Malzahn.

At the same time, however, the program is close enough to national contention that it can throw a fit and be heard loudly. The fans expect an opportunity to make the noise, tooand will be heard clearly if UCF doesn't win.

"Do you have a good grasp of the pressure cooker you're walking into here?" a reporter asked Malzahn at his press conference.

Well, yes. Malzahn spent eight years at Auburn, a school with two SEC championships, one national title and national runner-up during the 2010s. He was the offensive coordinator or head coach in those years; he understands this level of pressure.

The point of the question is fair, though. UCF expects more than a nice season once in a while. This blend of recent success, fan support and financial contributions is rare in the Group of Five.

While power-conference teams generally have that outlook, it's difficult to sustain. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have remained at the top of their conferences for an extended period, but others have occasionally broken through and quickly dipped. They surge, then fall again. Malzahn's time at Auburn is a good example of that challenge.

In Orlando, though, Malzahn has a far greater opportunity to accomplish it. Though he's one of few coaches to defeat Nick Saban in the SEC, the whole "not playing Alabama every year" thing is a plus.

Malzahn has everything you'd want in a coaching job: established success, financial backing and a great location for recruiting.

But the sky won't fall if a national title doesn't come. Instead, that's a happy bonus to baseline goals of a few conference championships and prominent bowl games.

               

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.com, cfbstats.com or B/R research. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.