It was 2007 and UCF just opened its new on-campus football stadium. The Knights hosted 6th ranked Texas and battled the Longhorns down to wire before falling short. UCF celebrated its new facility that many felt would never happen. But it did for the then low cost of $55M. Down I-4, South Florida football fans laughed at what UCF had built. They bragged about playing the NFL's Raymond James Stadium and how UCF's new structure was a "nice little thing" that couldn't match where the Bulls were playing.
South Florida was able to brag in 2007. Despite UCF's on-campus stadium, the Bulls were rolling and drawing national attention. South Florida was a member of the Big East while UCF was hanging out in CUSA- a conference the Bulls had moved on from. On October 13th, South Florida embarrassed UCF 64-12 in front of more than 65,000 in Tampa. The next day, the Bulls were ranked second in the nation and number two in the BCS rankings, trailing only Ohio State. In fact, five of the six computer rankings used in the BCS formula had South Florida number one.
The joy didn't last long as South Florida lost its next three games and finished the season 9-4. But the Bulls and their fans cared little about UCF and laughed at the notion of the two being rivals. South Florida saw little comparison of the two.
Now, 15 years later, much has changed. That "nice little thing" UCF built is a money machine for the Knights every home game. They share their revenue with no one and certainly don't pay rent to anyone, unlike South Florida's situation with Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls are again pitching sites and renderings for an on-campus stadium and everyone loves renderings. Renderings make for fun press conferences and lots of promises.
These days South Florida is doing everything it can to be UCF. They are building a $22M indoor performance facility and once again pitching the idea of an on-campus stadium. Their plans will cost a lot more than $55M and while many fans of the Tampa based school use social media platforms to tell UCF fans how pretty their stadium will be, there is the common thought of exactly how South Florida plans on paying for a structure that will cost a few hundred million dollars. States usually don't offer tax dollars to build college stadiums. Owners of pro teams usually threaten to move to get local governments to pay for all or most of a new building, but I don't think that's an option for the school.
But here's what's happened since UCF opened its stadium in 2007: it won six conference championships, played in 12 bowl games- with three of them being New Year's Six games, seven seasons of winning 10 games or more, two undefeated regular seasons and a 25-game winning streak. Oh, it also got an invitation to join the Big XII. South Florida has enjoyed football success since 2007. The Bulls have won 10 games or more twice and played in eight bowl games. But they have not yet won a conference title or appeared in a major bowl game and will not be following UCF to the Big XII. Maybe they will in a few years but their plan of action now is to do everything UCF has done to get to where UCF is already heading. Sell a vision, talk about building a stadium and expanding facilities and win big in the American. All with the hope it will lead to do what UCF was trying to do for years- win big and get to a bigger league.
Since 2013, the year UCF won a conference title and played in its first major bowl(the 2014 Fiesta Bowl where it beat Baylor), the Knights have gone 77-36. South Florida has gone 49-59 over the same period of time. Since the famous 2017 Black Friday game between the schools, the two have gone in different directions. Counting the 13-0 year in 2017 where UCF beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, the Knights went 41-8 over four seasons before the Big XII extended an invitation. Then UCF went 9-4 in Gus Malzahn's first season with a ton of injuries and beat Florida in a sold out bowl game at........Raymond James Stadium. Since that loss in 2017 to UCF, the Bulls have gone 14-32.
What is the value of those 41 wins for UCF and the hiring of Gus Malzahn? It was worth an invite to the Big XII, where UCF stands to see a significant increase in revenue. More revenue means expansion of current facilities and increased premium seating and other upgrades to that "nice little thing" you play home games at.
Now South Florida finds itself in the role UCF played when the Knights were sitting in Conference USA as the Bulls played in the Big East. You want to be where your rival is so you do everything you can to be like them.
I have no idea if South Florida university leaders and their fan base can successfully raise the money to build an on-campus stadium. Maybe they will. Maybe the Bulls will dominate the American when the new look league takes the field, likely for the 2023 season. If that happens, then maybe the Big XII will look to expand again and South Florida would be a prime candidate. I have supported the idea of having both schools in the same conference for years. It's good for the rivalry and both schools are in large media markets with massive enrollments and have much to offer.
I wondered for years if any school could play their way into a Power 5 league. I can make the argument UCF played their way into the Big XII. If they don't win 25 in a row and play in back-to-back major bowls and build a more national brand, they likely are not headed into a bigger league. Now, South Florida sees what the new American will look like and that might be their biggest motivation to their supporters to dig deep into their pockets and financially back plans for a new stadium.
How times have changed in just 15 years. South Florida went from number two in the nation to number two in a rivalry they once barely recognized as a rivalry. Now the question is, can South Florida turn renderings and dreams into a reality, a reality UCF has been living in as opposed to dreaming...
Final note: Speaking of college football stadiums, Franklin Field in Philadelphia is the oldest stadium, opening in 1895.