USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down the latest Amway Coaches Poll.
ORLANDO, Fla. — There was no offseason parade at Disney World. No national championship to celebrate. The offseason had none of the contempt and scorn once heaped onto a program reveling in the most successful season in its history. (Well, the offseason had less contempt and scorn, at least.)
Compared with last winter, spring and summer, this was an easy, off-the-radar offseason for second-year coach Josh Heupel and Central Florida, one far more familiar to programs on the Group of Five level than the constant stream of attention, a significant amount of it negative, previously paid to a team fresh off nearly gatecrashing the College Football Playoff.
“There was a lot of noise outside the program because we’re bucking the trend. It created a space where I had to answer a lot of questions I normally would not have to answer,” Heupel told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s different than it was 12 months ago, 16 months ago.”
In relative terms, a degree of anonymity has returned to UCF. While ranked No. 16 in the Amway Coaches Poll, the Knights have been the subject of little national focus in posting easy wins against Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic. Much like the rest of the program’s Group of Five peers, the Knights are operating outside the bubble of coverage paid to those Power Five teams headlining the current Top 25.
UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel celebrates with wide receiver Gabriel Davis after scoring a touchdown against Florida Atlantic. (Photo: Mark Brown, Getty Images)
“I feel like that takes a lot of pressure off us, because that just gives us the moment to not worry about people talking,” said junior defensive lineman Noah Hancock.
That may change before the end of September. Beginning with Saturday’s home game against Stanford (3:30 ET, ESPN) and continuing with a road trip to Pittsburgh a week later, UCF is embarking on a two-game stretch that may determine just how much scrutiny this team will face as the postseason picture rounds into form.
“Make us a Cinderella if you want,” Hancock said. “We’re going to do what we want regardless. We’re going to play, play hard and score points, and be part of the conversation whether those teams like it or not.”
Two things haven’t changed. One is the results: UCF has won 24 regular-season games in a row across two coaching tenures, from current Nebraska coach Scott Frost to Heupel, with its past 14 wins coming by an average of 22.3 points a game. Just one victory during this span has come by a single-digit margin. Dating to the start of the 2017 season, the Knights have lost just once, to LSU in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. No other program in the Bowl Subdivision has fewer than two losses during the same span.
And the other is an overwhelming sense of confidence: “People want to stop hating because we don’t talk about being undefeated anymore,” said sophomore offensive lineman Samuel Jackson, “but we’re just going to go undefeated again and it’s going to be the same thing.”
Even as the wins pile up, the Knights have “a sense of appreciation for every one that doesn’t exist at a lot of schools,” Heupel said. “I think there’s just a difference.”
In a way, a second unbeaten season might be as unexpected as the program’s first. The competition in the American Athletic Conference is stronger than ever. The defense replaced four of its six leading tacklers from a season ago. And after losing star quarterback McKenzie Milton to a knee injury last November — he’s doing “phenomenal” in his recovery, Heupel said of Milton — the Knights have been without Darriel Mack Jr., who played well as Milton’s replacement last season but missed all of fall camp and the first two games after breaking his ankle in July.
Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush started the Knights’ opener and threw for 168 yards and two touchdowns. With Wimbush slowed by an undisclosed injury, true freshman Dillon Gabriel started against Florida Atlantic and accounted for 264 yards of total offense and three scores. Mack has been cleared for practice and may see time on Saturday, Heupel said this week. Despite the unsettled situation at quarterback, UCF left the weekend tied for seventh nationally in scoring offense and fifth in yards per game.
Ranked among the nation’s best for most of the past decade, Stanford’s defense will provide a different sort of test. The Cardinal, and Pittsburgh a week later, will also present an opportunity: UCF will have the chance to make a statement against the Power Five. If successful, the Knights will find themselves back in the spotlight.
“All the games are important. We have to win,” Hancock said. “But those are going to be the games that’s all-or-nothing. We’re going to prepare, prepare, prepare. Those are the type of games that we know in the back of our minds there’s an emphasis to control the game.”