kickoff set for 7 p.m.
TAMPA BAY, FLORIDA (UCF Knights) – The numbers are modest.
This sixth consecutive postseason bowl appearance by the UCF football program makes for an all-time mark for the Knights.
Head coach Gus Malzahn’s first UCF team already has guaranteed itself a winning record—a fifth year in a row for that, and for a program that only twice had three winning years in succession (2000-02 under Mike Kruczek and 2012-14 under George O’Leary) since beginning Football Bowl Subdivision play on the Orlando campus in 1996. (The Knights did have 10 straight winning records from 1986 through 1995, all under Gene McDowell—the first four of those at the NCAA Division II level and the last six in UCF’s only years as a Football Championship Subdivision program.)
As always, it’s worth noting the Knights’ comparatively brief history in football. UCF did make three NCAA Division II/FCS playoff appearances under McDowell—but the Knights did not play in a bowl game for the first time until after the 2005 season. That was an overtime loss to Nevada in a wild and crazy 49-48 Hawai’i Bowl in which Kevin Smith ran for 202 yards and Brandon Marshall caught 11 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. The two teams both finished with 30 first downs—and they combined for 1,178 yards of offense.
It was five more years before the Knights claimed their initial bowl triumph—a 10-6 win over Georgia in the 2010 Liberty Bowl. That finished off an 11-win UCF campaign, a highwater mark at the time.
Eleven years later Malzahn and the Knights seek a sixth bowl win for the UCF program—this time against a Florida program that UCF fans have wanted to play more frequently—with the two teams having met only twice (1999 and 2006) in history. There are three more meetings to come in 2024, 2030 and 2033.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Malzahn carries his own bowl resume, having led his teams to the postseason every year he has been a head coach (once at Arkansas State, eight years in a row at Auburn and now in his first season at UCF).
Still, those six consecutive bowl games for UCF pale in comparison to the top ongoing in-a-row streaks by Georgia (25 through the 2021 season), Oklahoma (23), Wisconsin (20), Alabama (18) and Clemson (17).
So, yes, modest indeed for the Knights.
Yet don’t underestimate the importance of this clash Thursday night (7 p.m. ET on ESPN) in the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl. The fact the two teams’ fan bases responded so enthusiastically to make this a quick sellout at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is a bonus.
Certainly neither team expected the fall of 2021 to unfold quite the way it did in Orlando and Gainesville.
The Malzahn era opened with a weather-delayed comeback win over Boise State that tied for the best in UCF history.
Then, two weekends later began a remarkable string of injuries that capsized whatever projected depth chart the Knights had hoped to maintain.
On the final play of the last-second loss at Louisville, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel fractured his collarbone and never played again in 2021. Before the regular season was over, the Knights lost a striking series of impact players for extended periods of the campaign.
After Gabriel, there were number-one receiver Jaylon “Flash” Robinson, top running back Isaiah Bowser (he’s expected back for the Gasparilla Bowl after missing the final three regular-season games), defensive tackle all-star Kalia Davis, leading tackler Bryson Armstrong and a host of others who missed key time.
The Knights of late have not been prone to showcase players on the cover of their media guides. Bu they changed direction for 2021 with Malzahn joining Gabriel and Davis on the front.
None of the three finished the year healthy—with Malzahn suffering a fractured tibia late in the year and coaching the final three regular-season contests from an elevated table.
Meanwhile, the Gators ranked as high as 10th after taking a 3-1 mark to a road assignment at Kentucky to begin October play. Florida Thursday night will continue under the direction of interim coach Greg Knox.
The Gators’ performance Thursday—in Florida’s 47th all-time bowl game, including matchups in the Peach, Orange and Cotton games the previous three years—likely will dictate where it fits in the postseason memories of Gator fans.
For the Knights, it’s a chance to take on a Southeastern Conference opponent in a bowl game for the fifth time—after playing Mississippi State (2007 Liberty), Georgia (2010 Liberty), Auburn (2017 Peach) and LSU (2018 Fiesta).
UCF fans are quick to remind casual fans that their program is one of only 16 to play three times in New Year’s Six/BCS games in the 2013-2020 timeframe, one of just 13 to win two of those over those years—and is playing in the 2021 postseason for the ninth time in10 years (and the 13th in the last 17 years).
This time a true freshman quarterback, Mikey Keene, will lead the Knights into battle in a season in which he already has started nine games (and has not thrown an interception in the last four) even if he may have come into the year expecting to be a Gabriel backup.
Like for lots of other Knights, the “next man up” mentality has been an ongoing mindset for nearly every position group. But, if nothing else, UCF has had nearly four extra weeks to rest up and regain its health since the regular season concluded.
Whatever the two depth charts look like Thursday night, some 65,000 fans are expected to watch these two instate opponents go at it. It may be harder to officially term it a rivalry when the Knights and Gators have only met two times in football—but that won’t diminish the enthusiasm level.
Whether it’s been taking on all the challenges of his initial season at UCF or nearly finishing his first full year on the recruiting trail (with the impending move to the Big 12 Conference providing a notable lift), Malzahn has talked consistently of building the foundation for his Knight program.
UCF fans also will remember that just two seasons back in this same bowl game on this same field, the Knights produced a postseason-high 587 yards in a win over Marshall.
Yes, the UCF December and January highlight reel may be relatively modest in length.
Malzahn and his troops will seek to build on it this week, one more brick at a time.
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