The State of the Program Entering I-A
When the Knights were accepted to the I-A ranks in 1996, they became the first school in NCAA history to appear at all four tiers of the football hierarchy — Division III, Division II, Division I-AA and finally at the highest level of the sport. The Orlando school, which first fielded a football team in 1979, has succeeded at all levels of the sport as one of the mid-major jewels of the Sunshine State.
The first three Division III seasons under volunteer head coach and former CFL most outstanding player Don Jonas proved fruitful, the team going 6-2 in its inaugural season. By 1982 Jonas had moved on from the Knights, and UCF had moved up to Division II. After the short tenures of Sam Weir and Lou Saban, the Knights found their footing under the coach that would define the program’s rise — Gene McDowell, who came to Orlando in 1985 after working under Bobby Bowden as a linebackers coach at Florida State.
After two seasons hovering around .500 under McDowell, UCF reached the Division II playoffs with an 8-3 regular season record. They would beat Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the opening round before falling 31-10 to eventual national champion Troy in the Citrus Bowl. They would meet again the following season as two of the top-ranked teams in Division II, with UCF prevailing 26-18 to briefly move to #1 in the country before a midseason slump knocked them to 6-5 on the season. They would play out the 1980s and their Division II tenure with a 7-3 finish.
By 1990 the Knights had moved up as a I-AA independent. Their first season after the promotion saw UCF finish the regular season 8-3, McDowell guiding the team deftly in their transition to the I-AA playoffs. They knocked off Youngstown State and William & Mary before falling to eventual champion Georgia Southern in the semifinals.
In 1993 they would return to the playoffs after a 9-2 regular season, but Jim Tressel’s Youngstown State crew would gain their vengeance for 1990 with a 56-30 drubbing in the opening round. Hovering above .500 for the next two years, UCF prepared for their move to the I-A level with a 13-9 record in their final two seasons at the I-AA level.
The First Season
On August 29, 1996, the I-A era at Central Florida kicked off with a 39-33 win over I-AA William & Mary. September would be a sojourn of setbacks, with the Knights losing road games at South Carolina, New Mexico, Ball State and East Carolina — all by double digits. McDowell’s team had slumped to 1-4 by the time October arrived, when another I-AA foe provided the fodder to arrest their losing streak. Samford came to the Citrus Bowl and laid down to UCF 38-6.
After getting their second victory of the season, the Knights proved increasingly competitive as 1996 pushed further into autumn. A visit from Northeast Louisiana the following weekend nearly provided UCF with their first victory against a fellow I-A opponent, but the Indians prevailed on their trip to Orlando 39-38. Traveling to Georgia Tech the next weekend, UCF kept the contest close throughout the day though the Yellow Jackets survived the scare 27-20.
November offered up another sacrificial I-AA opponent to start the month with a winning streak. Illinois State arrived in Orlando right on schedule, falling 42-15 on their trip to Florida as the Knights moved to 3-6 in their inaugural I-A season. The winning streak continued on their trip to Birmingham the following week to face fellow I-A neophyte UAB, with UCF beating the Blazers convincingly at Legion Field 35-13.
Ending the season at home, UCF earned their fifth win of the season against MAC opponent Bowling Green. The Falcons, seeking their own fifth win of the year, fell by eight in the 27-19 defeat. Recovering from the September swoon, the Knights had persevered to go 4-2 in the final two months to finish 5-6.
How Have They Fared Since?
The Knights would once again go 5-6 in 1997 in McDowell’s final year in Orlando. The longtime head coach’s final season began with a one-point loss against Ole Miss in Oxford followed by a two-point loss to South Carolina in Columbia. In their third straight road game in September, a trip to Lincoln to face powerhouse Nebraska, UCF stayed within two touchdowns of the eventual undefeated national champions. The Knights had acquitted themselves well against tough competition. But the losing, along with a federal fraud scandal within the program, led to McDowell’s abrupt departure from the team after the season.
In Mike Kruczek’s first season as the new coach, UCF would go 9-2 in 1998. But their independent status left them on the outside of the postseason when it came time for bowl committees to select their invitees, and it would take another seven years before the team’s first bowl berth would be forthcoming. Over their last three years of independence, Kruczek’s teams would regress to 4-7 in 1999 before finishing with winning records in 2000 and 2001. The highlight of Kruczek’s third year would be a 40-38 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the school’s first win over an SEC opponent.
The team would join the MAC in 2002, going 7-5 in their first year in a I-A conference and finishing second behind Marshall in the East Division. It would prove the highlight of the school’s time in the MAC, as Kruczek would be fired with two games left in the 2003 season with the team sitting at 3-7. Under interim coach Alan Gooch, they would lose their last two games of the year.
The arrival of former Georgia Tech head coach George O’Leary would mark the turn of the program’s fortunes once again. The start of O’Leary’s tenure coincided with the school’s final year in the MAC in 2004, and the team bottomed out with a winless 0-11 season that offered little hope for the impending move to Conference USA.
And yet their tenure in their new league would begin with a 8-3 regular season that yielded a berth in the inaugural C-USA Championship Game as the East Division’s representative. Though they would lose at home in front of 51,978 (most of whom were partisan Knights supporters) to Tulsa, the eight-win season was rewarded with the team’s first-ever bowl berth. Invited to the Hawaii Bowl, UCF would lose to Nevada by a missed Matt Prater extra point in the 49-48 overtime shootout to finish the year 8-5.
After falling to 4-8 in 2006, the Knights were once again champions of the East Division in 2007. The season commenced with a two-point upset of NC State on opening day, continued with a visit from the Texas Longhorns that UCF nearly won, and resulted in a second trip to the C-USA Championship Game after a 9-3 regular season. Getting revenge for the 2005 loss, the Knights knocked off Tulsa 44-25. Their trip to the Liberty Bowl resulted in a 10-3 defeat to Mississippi State, but Central Florida had nevertheless completed the first 10-win season in nearly two decades.
Another 4-8 season followed a bowl appearance, but UCF rebounded in 2009 with an 8-4 season that earned an invite to the St. Petersburg Bowl. They would lose to Rutgers, still looking for the team’s first bowl victory.
2010 would yield that long-sought bowl trophy, as UCF earned their second C-USA championship against SMU and then knocked off the Georgia Bulldogs 10-6 in the Liberty Bowl. Their defeat of the SEC powerhouse, coming though it did in a .500 season for the Bulldogs, yielded the first 11-win season in school history.
So, naturally, the Knights fell below .500 in 2011 after their breakthrough campaign. The 5-7 season would prove an aberration, as UCF returned to their winning ways in 2012. Appealing an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations, the Knights played in their fourth C-USA Championship Game in 2012. Losing to Tulsa 33-27, UCF recovered for a 38-17 trouncing of Ball State in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg.
After winning their appeal, UCF enters their new life as a member of the American Athletic Conference in 2013 eligible for postseason play and facing no further sanctions. O’Leary and the Knights will become instant challengers in their new league, hoping that the new home treats them as well as Conference USA did — rather than the nightmare that was the team’s three-season stint in the MAC.