Opinion: Central Florida, the self-proclaimed national power, no longer to be feared

When you win as Central Florida used to win, you can kind of create your own reality. You can act like a Power Five school, even though you’re not one. You can try to bully your big-name in-state opponents into playing, even if they have little incentive to do so. You can even claim a national championship you didn’t win. 

But when you’re a humility-free organization that constantly claims grievance, you better keep excelling or the bill will come due. 

That day is today. Whatever complaints UCF has had in the past about not getting respect because of the American Athletic Conference or not getting the non-conference games it wants when and where it wants them are now falling on deaf ears. Because the Knights are not running the league anymore; they’re just another team that can win or lose on a given Saturday and nobody’s going to consider it an upset. In fact, UCF is just 9-5 going back to the midway point of last season after Saturday’s 50-49 loss at Memphis. 

Memphis celebrates after a score during its victory over Central Florida on Saturday. UCF is no longer the power of the AAC. (Photo: Justin Ford, USA TODAY Sports)

Not only did UCF’s 13-game winning streak over Memphis end but the Knights coughed up a 35-14 second-half lead, lost a game in which they had 798 offensive yards and missed a 40-yard field goal that would have given them the lead with fewer than 20 seconds remaining. 

All that is bad enough for a program that holds itself to an extremely high standard relative to the AAC, a program that purports to have the best facilities, the most institutional commitment to football and access to the most talent in its surrounding area.

But even worse is that the mystique of UCF is now over, and the questions will begin about whether Josh Heupel is capable of sustaining what Scott Frost handed over to him. After a 12-0 regular season and Fiesta Bowl bid in Heupel’s first year, the decline has been gradual but noticeable. 

Now UCF fans aren’t arguing about whether they deserve a spot in the College Football Playoff, they’re discussing whether there’s something seriously wrong with their program. That’s why the Knights are No. 1 in the Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched. 

FOUR MORE IN MISERY

Auburn: Around Halloween every year, Auburn fans have The Gus Conversation. Because it’s normally at this point in the calendar where it’s become clear Auburn isn’t achieving the lofty heights its fans want, so the message boards and the booster chatter about the next coach gets cranked up. Only there’s never been a next coach because Gus Malzahn has managed to do just enough to hang on — including beating Alabama three times in seven years, which is no small feat. But Auburn has rarely looked as non-threatening under Malzahn as it looks right now following a 30-22 loss to South Carolina, dropping the Tigers to 2-2. Though Auburn fans have a reputation for being crazy and unreasonable, and the school generally tilts toward dysfunction in athletics, this looks like a fairly straightforward evaluation. In Year 8 under Malzahn, Auburn has settled somewhere between the 15th and 30th best program in the country, which would be pretty good at most places. Is it good enough at Auburn?

Tennessee: Every fan base of a mediocre program gets excited when there are signs of turning the corner. But the defining characteristic of the Vols’ fan base over the last 10 years has been its ability to jump from hopeful to boastful before there’s sufficient evidence to support their level of cockiness. Tennessee ended last season with six consecutive victories and began this season with two, which gave the Vols the longest winning streak in the country. Predictably, that was enough to convince Vol Nation that Jeremy Pruitt was on the verge of putting them back into SEC title contention. Of course, Tennessee fans conveniently ignored the quality of that eight-game winning streak. Sorry, but South Carolina (x2), UAB, Kentucky, Missouri (x2), Vanderbilt and Indiana was not exactly much of a litmus test. And now we know the truth after Tennessee was crushed in the second half by Georgia last week and turned it over four times in a 34-7 home loss to Kentucky: The Vols just aren’t ready for prime time. 

Syracuse: When the Orange opened the 2019 season with a 24-0 win at Liberty, the program was riding its biggest high in almost 20 years. Coming off a strong 10-3 season, Dino Babers looked like a rising star. For the first time since joining the ACC, Syracuse seemed as if it had a real chance to stay in that second tier right behind Clemson. Then the following week, Syracuse was stunned 63-20 by Maryland and nothing has been the same since. Syracuse not only lost nine of its 12 subsequent ACC games but its rematch with Liberty ended with visiting players snapping celebratory pictures in the Carrier Dome after a thorough 38-21 beatdown. Injuries have ravaged the Syracuse roster — more than a dozen key contributors are out, including quarterback Tommy DeVito — but fans have to be wondering how a program that looked as if it were on the rise sunk so quickly back to the bottom. 

Mississippi State: Another week, another belly flop by Mike Leach’s offense in a 28-14 loss to Texas A&M, which might set an all-time college football record for a fan base souring on a first-year coach. It’s literally happened in the span of three weeks. After that incredible debut against LSU, the league seems to have quickly figured out Mississippi State as its offense has mustered just three touchdowns in the subsequent three games. This, amid a league where nobody can really stop anybody this season. But it seems as if everybody can stop the Bulldogs, and it seems to be getting worse instead of better. Kentucky held them to 295 yards last week, while A&M allowed just 217. Leach’s next move may be a quarterback change to freshman Will Rogers, who led an early touchdown drive. But when you can’t run the ball at all — Mississippi State is last in FBS at 28.5 yards a game — it’s going to be tough to change the narrative this season. 

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY

Georgia: In a normal year, the Alabama problem doesn’t really matter for Georgia until December when they have to play each other in the SEC Championship game. But this is one of those rare occasions where Alabama-Georgia lands on the regular-season schedule and confirms Nick Saban is still the boss. Indeed, as long as Saban continues his remarkable 22-0 streak against former assistants, Georgia is probably not going to win its elusive national title. Maybe things will be different if there’s a rematch in two months, but there’s a real difference between the teams at the skill positions and at quarterback. Georgia is going to probably win every other game on its schedule this season, but it won't be particularly satisfying to fans if it can’t close that gap. 

Tulane: The Green Wave is shaping up as the hard-luck case of the year. On Sept. 19, Tulane blew a 24-0 halftime lead against Navy and lost on a 33-yard field goal at the buzzer. Last week, Tulane led Houston 24-7 but collapsed in the second half and lost 49-31. That result was even more remarkable and gutting because Tulane was plus-five in turnover margin. Then on Friday night, Tulane was lining up for a 57-yard field goal to win in regulation but never got the kick off due to a false start penalty. After throwing an interception in overtime, Tulane had to get its heart broken all over again as SMU kicked a short field goal for a 37-34 win. 

Georgia Tech: You can argue nobody in the country has it tougher from a schedule standpoint than the Yellow Jackets, who aren’t in Clemson’s division of the ACC but play them every year as a permanent crossover opponent and also have to deal with Georgia (though not this year due to the SEC playing a conference-only schedule). That makes it tough when you’re rebuilding, and nobody has done more to stomp on Geoff Collins’ progress than Clemson. The combined score of the two meetings since Collins took over? 125-21. As good as Georgia Tech fans were feeling good after upsetting Louisville, Clemson delivered a 73-7 reality check that feels like at least a temporary setback to the momentum Collins is trying to build. 

Virginia: The steady progression under Bronco Mendenhall from 2-10 in his first season to an ACC championship game appearance and Orange Bowl bid last year has gone the other direction. Virginia is a luckless 1-3 following a 40-23 loss at Wake Forest and very possibly headed to 1-5 with games coming against Miami and North Carolina. There are certainly some mitigating circumstances — primarily, quarterback Brennan Armstrong is dealing with a concussion — but Virginia needed to build cushion against Wake and N.C. State before the schedule turned nasty. Instead, the Cavaliers lost both games, dooming them to the bottom third of the ACC. 

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“It’s nice knowing the season is over” – UCFSports.com

“I think Gus is a good man, He can prove it today by resigning!” – Auburn Undercover

“Leach…Offensive Guru my @@@“ – Gene’s Page (Mississippi State)

“Praying for covid mercy cancellation Saturday” – VolNation.com

“We are built to win a title 10 years ago” – The Dawgvent (Georgia) 

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