Sure, there had been logos around the athletic facility, cool social media posts, a flag here and there but there was nothing yet to make it seem real. UCF had been invited to join the Big 12 back in October of 2021. And while the planning and fundraising have been ongoing, January 31, 2023 made it all real. The Big 12 released its football schedule for the upcoming season and it hit home for fans, coaches, players and media.
In 2003, just 20 years ago, UCF's conference road trips sent them to Kent State, Ohio, Akron and Eastern Michigan. This fall they will journey to Kansas St, Kansas, Oklahoma, Cincinnati and Texas Tech. The Knights will host Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Houston. A lot has changed in two decades.
In years past, UCF played maybe one or two games against Power 5 opponents. For the foreseeable future, they will play at least 10 per season. It may only be for one season, but when UCF travels to Norman to play Oklahoma it will be a conference game that impacts the standings. For long-time UCF fans stop and think about that.
The Daunte Culpepper era was filled with big time opponents on the road and most of those games were scheduled so UCF could pay for its program and athletic department. There were close calls and even an upset at Alabama, but those opponents always looked at UCF as that upstart program with big aspirations who faced a long road to go somewhere few thought was possible.
From playing as an independent or in the MAC, CUSA or AAC- UCF kept selling the dream. Someday. Somehow. It could and would happen. There were marketing packages, private meetings and scenarios rumored. There were presentations made and dollar figures thrown about. But no bites and much frustration from UCF fans, coaches and athletic department leaders.
I have said it many times and will say it again- UCF is a member of the Big 12 this fall because of the hard work of so many committed people on the field and behind the scenes but they are in a Power 5 league because they won 41 games in four years between 2017 and 2020 and posted two unbeaten regular seasons and played in two major bowl games. As much as college football fans and many members of the media were bothered and even offended over UCF's national championship claim after the 2017 season, it kept them in the spotlight and set them up to fall in 2018. Except, UCF didn't fall. They ran the table again and stretched the win streak to 25 before falling to LSU in their second straight New Year's Six bowl.
The onfield performance over that four year stretch put UCF in position to be a prime choice for the Big 12 once SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey swooped in during the middle of the night and took Oklahoma and Texas. Would the Big 12 have invited UCF, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU if that didn't happen? Probably not, but it did happen and then commissioner Bob Bowlsby and others in the league had already done the due diligence from the league's expansion process a few years earlier in 2016. What happened to UCF from the end of the 2016 season to the summer of 2021? They won 41 games and became a brand.
From conference trips to Kalamazoo, Toledo, Hattiesburg, Huntington and Greenville, the Knights will now visit Lubbock, Manhattan(not that one, the one in Kansas), Waco, Ames, Fort Worth and even Salt Lake City in the coming years. They will face schools that have been playing football for over a hundred years and they will create new rivalries and find every road game is played in a stadium full of people who don't want you to win. But they also will host teams that have never visited Orlando and realize their town has become one of the most desired destinations for fans to travel when their team visits the Bounce House.
Every conference is challenging to win. But players and fans will realize there is a big difference in the weekly grind of the American to a Power 5 league. The Big 12 offers no gimme or game you can be not at your best and win. There were stadiums in the AAC where a couple of thousand was a typical crowd. There are no stadiums in the Big 12 like that. Most Big 12 games are sold out and sold out for weeks and months before your team arrives.
UCF faces an incredible challenge and opportunity as it opens play in the Big 12. Their first ever Big 12 game is at Kansas State, who won the league last season. Their first home game is against Baylor, who won the league two years ago. Then it's back on the road at Kansas, who played in their first bowl game last year since 2008. A bye week comes before the Knights travel to Norman to face Oklahoma and their former quarterback Dillon Gabriel. The final five league games include West Virginia, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Houston.
The Big 12 requires its teams to face at least one Power 5 opponent in a non-conference game. UCF got league approval to count the road game at Boise State as a P5 team based on the Broncos success over the last two decades. Future Power 5 non-conference games include Florida, North Carolina and Maryland and AD Terry Mohajir has a few more games on the horizon to highlight those non Big 12 matchup.
It's funny, many in the college football media criticized UCF when then AD Danny White preached the Knights would not do a 2-for-1 contract with P5 schools and insisted on home and home deals. Some ADs(even those not geographically far from UCF) said that was not possible because they were not in a major league. Well, it's a new day and the 2-for-1 days are gone. Now, Terry Mohajir goes into scheduling negotiations holding a much different hand.
It's been a long road since that September 22, 1979 game where UCF's first team played its first game. The school's first coach, Don Jonas, is 84. I have had the honor of talking with him over the years and listened to his views of where this program has come from. I remember George O'Leary saying UCF could play in a major conference and likely would be a team adding value to a league and not living off the brand of others. And I remember that morning in October of 2021 when the invitation was extended to join the Big 12. But Tuesday it became real. It's now there for everyone to see. A conference football schedule that showcases UCF with some of the best brands in college football.
The 2023 season will be a challenge and it will include many firsts. But UCF has been busy with challenges and firsts since 1979, so let the games begin...
Final note: Of the current 10 members of the Big 12, Baylor is the oldest school founded in 1845. That honor will now go to Cincinnati, which was founded in 1819. Of the current 10 members, Texas has the largest enrollment over 52,000. That honor will now go to UCF, which has an enrollment over 70,000.