Marc Daniels: UCF's $400M Move And Are The Knights Ready To Compete?

AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida

Photo: Getty Images

As UCF enters a new era in its history, just how big of a change will it be?

Let's talk about finances first. The Knights will not be a fully paid member of the Big 12 for a few years but are projected to make about $21M for the upcoming athletic year. It's well more than double what UCF ever made during any season in the AAC and that includes years when the team played in a major bowl game.

The new 12-team college football playoff is expected to be a cash windfall for all P5 leagues. There will be a battle among the SEC and Big Ten and the other bigger leagues over how the new billions will be split. The SEC will want more and a system that rewards leagues with multiple teams in the playoff is realistic. But media experts project Big 12 schools to make somewhere between $45-50M per school in the coming years with additional football playoff revenue and the expected continued success of the league in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. UCF might be looking at around $75M in the next three years, but then average about $40-50M for the rest of the decade. That's how the next ten years might see the Knights make up to $400M. 

That money allows UCF to invest in facilities, recruiting, coaching, fan experience and maybe player acquisition as we move further into the NIL world. To say the move to the Big 12 is a game changer is an understatement. But after being one of the top programs in the American, can the Knights compete quickly in the Big 12?

The football program enters its new league after back-to-back nine win campaigns under Gus Malzahn, who has recruited a different level of player out of high school and has been among the most successful coaches in the transfer portal. 

The challenge is real for the Knights who face a tough nine-game conference slate in a league that might have been the most competitive in the country. While Texas and Oklahoma might be favorites this year in the Big 12, Kansas State, Texas Tech and TCU are solid teams and Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas expect to be as good or better. UCF will now play on the road in stadiums sold out and will experience a different atmosphere than most road games in the AAC.

But the talent is there for the 2023 Knights to win and be in a number of games this fall. This league has played many one possession games over the years and there is a good chance no team runs through the conference slate unbeaten. A 7-2 record might get a team into the conference title game.

UCF returns talent on both sides of the ball and has added experience via the portal and adds several highly recruited players out of high school that have a chance to play early and contribute.

So is there a Big Four now in the state of Florida with UCF's move into a Power 5 league? Some chuckle at such a notion. But programs are what they are and have been in recent years.

In the last decade, here's how the four programs have fared:

Major/New Year's Six Bowl Games:


Florida 3


Miami 1

Conference Titles


Florida 0


Miami 0

Top 25 Finishes:


Florida 5


Miami 3

Some will argue that UCF's competition has not been the same as playing in the SEC or ACC. That's fair, but their path to playing in major bowls required perfection or pretty close to perfection and you can only win the league you play in.

While Florida State appears to be back in the game as one of the top programs going into the season, Florida and Miami are still rebuilding rosters with second year coaches. The Gators have recruited well this second season for Billy Napier, but another six win season is possible. Mario Cristobal has also recruited a solid class but he too has gutted a roster entering his second season.

UCF now gets to sell their program competing in a different league and the early signs are Gus Malzahn is in his fair share of recruiting battles as he sells what the Big 12 is and can be. In time, media and fans will judge all four teams in the state by how their season ends and if they are part of the newly expanded playoff coming next season. For now, UCF only has a game in Gainesville next year where a head-to-head battle allows for bragging rights. The Knights have tried, but unsuccessfully, in scheduling games against the Noles and Canes. That is not expected to change in the foreseeable future.

With Oklahoma and Texas moving to the SEC next year, UCF might be entering the league at a prime time to continue their program building and join the mix of teams that battle for a title each year. That will not be easy to do but doable. The same applies to Florida and Miami. There is no guarantee the Gators will get back to the level of Spurrier and Meyer and ditto for the Canes to get to championship level again. Both Florida and Miami have the resources but it's not that easy to assume they get back to dominating as they one did.

Recruiting and portal rankings, wins and losses and final season records and playoff berths will ultimately be how the four programs are compared. UCF will have to earn the respect of the others but that's fair. But at least now the Knights have a real case to argue as they enter a league with national recognition.

July 1 begins a new era for UCF. One that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and one where they now get to compete against a new set of rivals and compare their program against three other in-state schools that used to never pay attention before. Let the games begin...

Final note: In 1994 the SEC and CBS signed a contract that brought a weekly 3:30p game to the network. The five-year deal totaled $100M. That would be $20M per year for the entire conference. That broke down to $1.67M per team. 

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