Central Florida the new favorite in first-year AAC

Central Florida has replaced eighth-ranked Louisville as the
team to beat in the American Athletic Conference and now looks
toward earning the BCS bid that comes with the league crown.

The Knights quickly changed the landscape in the upstart
conference by rallying to upset the favored Cardinals 38-35 on
Friday night. With the win, UCF (5-1, 2-0) quashed Louisville’s
hopes of running the table toward another BCS appearance and
possibly earning an outside shot at the national championship.

Though tied atop the AAC with Houston and South Florida, UCF’s
league title prospects got a big boost with the win that
quarterback Blake Bortles called ”giant” for the program and the
school. The Knights want to continue the momentum and claim the
rewards that Louisville was expected to reap.

”Obviously, it’s a big win, there’s no question about that,”
said UCF coach George O’Leary, adding that it was the biggest in
his 10-year tenure at the Orlando, Fla., school.

”It’s the biggest win of the year because it’s a conference
win. I’m just happy for the kids. We went in the game with one
motto: great effort, great effort, great effort and compete. And
that’s what I thought they did.”

Then came the wild celebration on the field and among a small
section of Knights fans who chanted ”UCF, UCF” after the
improbable victory.

”I think it speaks volumes about this program,” the
quarterback said afterward in a jubilant locker room. ”We are a
gritty team, a resilient team. We came right back. I think that
speaks a lot about our character.”

Now comes the challenge of maintaining that character over the
rest of the Knights’ season.

UCF improved to 4-0 on the road this season, its best start in
program history. The Knights’ chances of securing the AAC’s
automatic BCS bowl berth depend on taking full advantage of
friendly confines with four of their final six games at home,
beginning next Saturday against Connecticut. The Huskies (0-5, 0-1)
played at Cincinnati on Saturday.

With the exception of home games against Houston (Nov. 9) and
rival South Florida (Nov. 29), the Knights’ other four opponents
are just 1-6 in conference play.

Though that record suggests a big advantage for them, they’re
taking nothing for granted.

UCF has already split two overtime games while scoring 50-plus
points in each. The Knights upset Penn State on the road and fell a
field goal short against South Carolina. They had to recover two
fumbles in nine seconds to earn a comeback victory at Memphis.

The Knights now want to seize the huge opportunity they now
have.

”This gives us great confidence,” UCF receiver Jeff Godfrey
said. ”This will give us momentum.”

The Knights’ rally from a 28-7 deficit midway through the third
quarter with 24 unanswered points matched the biggest comeback in
school history. UCF overcame a 21-0 hole to beat Illinois State
28-24 in 1984.

But after Louisville reclaimed the lead, the Knights had to
muster up a second comeback.

The Cardinals took a 35-31 lead on Dominique Brown’s 15-yard
touchdown run with three minutes left. Considering UCF used just
under 7 1/2 minutes to tie the game earlier, there was more than
enough time to mount a game-winning drive.

The Knights consumed 2:37, capping a 75-yard, 11-play drive with
Bortles’ 2-yard TD pass to Godfrey. Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
and the Cardinals were unable to answer in the final 23
seconds.

Bridgewater’s 50-yard desperation heave was batted down in the
end zone as time expired, effectively ending his Heisman Trophy
hopes as well.