… except, when you get down to it, the fact that UCF was headed to the Fiesta Bowl was almost more of a rags-to-riches story than most BCS Busters have enjoyed over the years. Though they technically earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl as an automatic qualifier, UCF’s ascendancy provides the quintessential example of upward mobility that has marked the BCS era for mid-major programs.
18 years ago, the Knights moved up from the I-AA ranks to join the top division in college football; their transition would occur the same season as Boise State’s rise to the I-A level. Like the Broncos, their football program was a product of the 1970s. But unlike Boise, they would start out at the end of the decade rather than the beginning, and they would start a step lower at the Division III level. By the time they reached I-A status in 1996, UCF had become the first program to play at every division of NCAA-sanctioned college football.
Thus, when the Knights moved from Conference USA to the remnants of the Big East this past offseason, they then became the first school to go from Division III all the way to AQ status at the FBS level. Sure, they earned their trip to Glendale based on a loophole, as the rebranded American Athletic Conference lucked out in retaining the Big East’s automatic bid for the final season of BCS action. But even without AQ status, it is possible that an 11-1 conference champion whose only loss was to the fourth-ranked team in the final AP poll of the 2013-14 season would still have been Arizona bound.
None of the previous BCS Busters had grown to prominence as quickly. Boise State, the most recent vintage of the four prior teams to reach the Promised Land of BCS inclusion, entered the I-A ranks with UCF (and Idaho and UAB) in 1996 having previously won the I-AA National Championship in 1980 and played in the title game as recently as 1994. The three other teams — Utah, TCU, and Hawaii — have always been members of the I-A ranks. No team has had as far to climb as the Knights to get to BCS glory.
Less than 35 years after playing its first football game as a scholarship-free Division III school, the University of Central Florida is now the champion of one of the most lucrative bowl games in the postseason calendar. Ignoring its status as a 17-point underdog against Baylor, the Knights jumped to an early lead and never trailed in the contest.
UCF quarterback Blake Bortles finished the game with 394 total yards of offense and four touchdowns; his backfield mate, tailback Storm Johnson, would add another 123 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. And in the process George O’Leary — the man who once fudged a resume trying to land the Notre Dame gig, rendering himself a longtime laughingstock in the coaching game — finally completed his construction of a champion in Orlando.
With Bortles, Johnson and several other upperclassmen headed to the NFL or other post-collegiate walks of life, the Knights are hardly guaranteed sustained success moving forward. The fact that the AAC becomes a non-AQ conference and must compete for a single guaranteed College Football Playoff bowl bid against the MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, and Conference USA complicates matters further.
So while they technically were a BCS-conference school in 2013, the Knights of UCF remain the epitome of a mid-major program. As the final minutes ticked away in the desert, fans of Cinderellas were not left thinking about the inability of NIU or Fresno State to win them all. Instead, a program that spent 15 of the 16 BCS seasons as a minnow in the Sunshine State created one more shining moment for mid-majors in the BCS era.