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UCF Football Loss to Penn State: What Does It Mean for Program, AAC?

After Blake Bortles put UCF football on the map, the team started the new season with a defeat at the hands of Penn State. Allen Levin looks at the big picture.

Justin Holman
Justin Holman

Justin Holman. Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The team that was graced with lucky breaks and success in close games for the entirety of last season finally saw their luck run thin.

And of all places- Dublin, Ireland.

The UCF Knights, who went 12-1 last season and topped Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl for the greatest season in program history, couldn’t muster any more “luck of the Irish” despite being in the town where luck is supposedly bountiful.

The Knights mounted a second half comeback against Penn State, only to lose in the final seconds to a Sam Ficken 36-yard field goal that sent them back to the United States with a 26-24 defeat and an 0-1 record to start the season. 

So, what does this mean for UCF and the American Athletic Conference as a whole?

Despite college football relevancy seemingly being strangle held by the SEC and the rest of the “Power 5” conferences, UCF boasts one of more talented rosters in the country and are looking to hold on to their title as best Non-Power 5 team.

Last year, under the guidance of No. 3 overall draft pick Blake Bortles, the Knights went from relatively unheard of to finishing the season as the No. 10 ranked program in the country.

The Black and Gold team out of Orlando has gone 22-5 over the past two years with two consecutive bowl wins, including last year’s dominant performance over Big 12 champion Baylor.

They have forced themselves into relevancy by recruiting hidden gems in the football-fertile state of Florida and racking up wins year in and year out.

Since 2007, the Knights boast a 60-32 record, have three bowl victories, three conference championships, and four double-digit win seasons. In other words, they have quietly been one of the most successful Non-Power 5 programs in the country.

Head Coach George O’Leary has helped place this program on the map and continues to land strong 3- and 4-star recruits who get passed over by the Alabamas, Florida States, and Oklahomas of the college football world.

With that being said, there are now expectations in Orlando. There is no such thing as moral victories anymore, which is why UCF’s loss to Penn State is considered an upset.

If the Knights want to avoid a program setback, they will need to turn this ship around immediately and win out.

Not only does it mean a lot for the program as it continues to advance, but it also means something for the American conference as a whole.

With the departure of Louisville and Rutgers at the end of last season, the conference lost the small luster it had. Now, the AAC’s premier programs are Central Florida and Cincinnati, who will need to win big games and make reputable bowl games if they want to maintain a level of respect.

After last year’s success, UCF is looked upon by the rest of the conference to be the primetime program that makes national headlines and forces itself into the conversation.

UCF was one of the fastest programs in college football history to win a BCS bowl and are growing at a rapid pace. But without continued success, they could lose the marquee status they fought for last season.

Despite dropping their season opener, the Knights returned home with two key takeaways:

Justin Holman is their starting quarterback moving forward and that they clearly have the talent to play with the big boys.

They overcame a 10-point third quarter deficit, an inexperienced first-time starting QB (Pete DiNovo), and an excellent performance by one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Christian Hackenberg to take the go-ahead lead with less than 2 minutes remaining.

Sure, they ended up dropping the game, but they showed that talent is no longer the issue with this program.

And while being the marquee Non-Power 5 team isn’t exactly a glamorous position, it’s the progress that the Knights need to eventually be a “big boy” program.

They already have the resume with a BCS bowl win, the talent, the recruiting prowess, and some national spotlight to be in the conversation.

But, they will need to continue to win ball games and go out on the field and earn everything this season.

There is no more Blake Bortles; no more Storm Johnson. It’s time that UCF proves they weren’t a one-hit wonder and have the talent to compete year after year.

That will start with Holman and his talented receiving core, as well as a defense that returns 9 starters from last year’s squad.

With Florida and Miami currently in a state of mediocrity and an American conference that needs a major player, UCF has a lot riding on its shoulders.

They can go out and show just how far they’ve come as a program with a win over Missouri next Saturday.

Otherwise, they may as well continue to be the little brother instead of emerging big brother.

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