Wait, what, it's over?
As much as Knights fans probably want to take on Stanford or Oklahoma or whoever wins tonight's Orange Bowl (or, hell, line up against FSU when they get back from their little party in California to play for Florida supremacy), that 52-42 win over Baylor that we're STILL trying to believe happened is the end of the line.
That's kinda good -- gives the weaker members of the Black and Gold to catch up on their supplies of Tums, Pepto Bismol and nitroglycerine.
After over a day to think about the Fiesta Bowl win, there's a few great things about it.
Run the game through your mind again. Early on, UCF pounded the Bears with the run -- I mean pushed and shoved them out of the way. The Knights built a 14-0 lead in less than eight minutes on 11 offensive plays -- and TEN of them were runs.
Baylor then shores up the defensive line and UCF counters with the pass, and up steps Blake Bortles. Now, he stumbled a bit at first, missing some passes high (where he misses when he's a bit "off" and explains the first of two interceptions), but instead of panicking, which he never does, he went dug deep into that reservoir of poise, which he always does, and went 16-for-21 the rest of the way.
Sure, Baylor tied it 28-28 in the third quarter. It was never a contest after that. The defense got one big stop and the offense scored on its next 3 possessions. When the score reached 52-35 there was room to have pause for optimism -- something that doesn't run in large supply when you've observed UCF football in the long term -- because while Baylor seems like it can score twice on one drive, who in Black & Gold didn't get the sense of "We got this"?
4:44 remained on the clock of a 3-score game, meaning there'd be 4 possessions before Baylor could get the ball with a chance to win the game. If those 4 took 1:11 each (quite possible if the Bears recovered an onside kick, but they only had 2 timeouts left), game's over. Yes, the Bears scored a touchdown on their next drive, but needed 200 of the remaining 288 seconds of game clock to do it -- yes, the Knights' defense, a much-maligned bunch, was the closer for this game.
In short, the better team won Wednesday night.
And now UCF is one of only five teams in the county that will win a BCS game this year. (One won't be Alabama.) So shouldn't we be ranked no lower than 5th when the final rankings come out Tuesday? I say that in jest, but it's fun to think that way.
On the biggest stage an American Athletic Conference team could hope to reach this season, UCF stepped up and played like it could play with anybody in the country. Baylor, also in its first BCS game, botched an extra point, missed a field goal and committed a handful of bad penalties. Or as one longtime Knights fan put it, played like a pre-Bortles, pre-O'Leary UCF team when the red light flipped on.
BCS games of the past often featured an unworthy champion of an AQ conference (see Pitt or UConn of Big Easts pasts) limping into the game with an 8-4 record to get pummeled by a worthy at-large team. UCF didn't go 11-1 by accident this year. Some of the final scores down the stretch didn't have the look of a team that ate opponents for breakfast, but the moment the Knights defeated Louisville, the B-C-S chant started and never stopped. For a month and a half. The players still had to win those last six games, and hearing about what-could-be all the while had to be mentally draining.
Stepping up when the chips were down was the theme of this 2013 UCF team. Count how many times the Knights did that (in a way they never have before) on your hands and you'll run low on fingers. Lets take another ride through that gauntlet, shall we?
The fumble recovered by lineman in end zone-fumble on ensuing kickoff for TD-interception of halfback option pass triumvirate at Memphis;
The rally from 28-7 down with about 12 minutes left at Louisville;
The game-ending goal-line stand against the prolific offense of Houston;
The best thing to ever happen in Philadelphia since the cheese steak, the soft pretzel and the Declaration of Independence:
Blake Bortles shaking off a four-turnover night by flipping a pass to Breshad Perriman to (finally) beat USF;
The whole team shaking while playing in 15-degree weather to finish the regular season with an 8-game winning streak at SMU;
And then being the better team in a meeting of conference champions and the entire country watching. By the way, the Fiesta Bowl was the 3rd time UCF played a team ranked in the top 12 at kickoff -- it went 2-1 in those games. We invoked the term, "Biggest Win in School History" about five times this year; the Liberty Bowl win over Georgia in 2010 might as well have been in 1810.
Yes, it was a great season, easily the greatest in school history. Yes the pieces were in place, but it came a little over eight years since the Knights played in front of sad-looking crowds at the Florida Citrus Bowl while mired in a 17-game losing streak. But go back before that, to all the games that UCF entered as an underdog, teased and kicked that dog for three-and-a-half quarters, only to find a way to lose at the end and still get patted on the back for being thiiiiiiis close to a landmark win. Good job! Good effort! Like you say to a Special Olympics athlete. There's at least a dozen of those "almost" games. I watched all of them. Daunte Culpepper played in many of them.
Those days are done. If UCF can keep this up, there will never be room to ever overlook them again. There will be no more "moral victories". No matter the opponent, when you lose you feel disgusted, and as Coach O'Leary says, a little piece of you dies.
So is this a flash in the pan? I hope not. I also hope Blake Bortles returns, but that hope fades a little each day. But if Bortles returns, UCF is the hands-down favorite to win the AAC in 2014, and the Knights enter the season as a ranked team. If they run through the season like this year -- they wouldn't need the same drama, right? -- with a non-conference schedule that includes the Penn State game in Ireland, Missouri and BYU, they would easily make one of the prominent "access" bowls in the new College Football Playoff. As a repeat major player, BOOM you're Boise State, with the chance to win the recruiting battles to become a lasting factor in college football like Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Georgia or Miami.
Give it a few more months, and it will all play out again.
UCF vs. Penn State, just 239 days away.
Listen to Ken along with J.C. Carnahan on "The Community Sports Report" each Thursday from 4-5 p.m. on WPRK 91.5 or on the web at Tunein.com for the latest news and views on the Orlando sports scene.