UCF earns first ranking in AP poll at No. 25

Long in the shadows of the state’s traditional powerhouses,

Central Florida has some bragging rights this week.

UCF’s rise reached a major milestone Sunday with the program’s

first national ranking in The Associated Press poll at No. 25.

While Florida is No. 24, Florida State and Miami are unranked.

Word of the ranking spread through text messages and phone calls

and some UCF players – many shunned by the state’s Big Three – were

even on the Internet awaiting the results. Another group was eating

at a supermarket deli when they heard the news.

”A lot of high-fiving. People were excited,” senior defensive

end Bruce Miller said. ”There was a lot of people there who

thought we were weird.”

The Knights (7-2, 5-0) are the only team unbeaten in Conference

USA this season. They vaulted into the national rankings with big

wins against East Carolina and Houston and are in prime position to

host the league title game.

UCF has been working to make this kind of national splash.

In the last few years alone, the university has built an

on-campus football stadium, a new basketball arena and athletic

facilities made to sparkle. The school also has ballooned into the

second-largest university in the country with more than 56,000

students.

”It’s hard to get there. It’s harder to stay there,” UCF coach

George O’Leary said. ”That’s the big thing and what I’ll press

upon the kids.”

The hope always has been to lure top recruits away from the

state’s traditional powers.

UCF got a late start, not playing its first football game until

1979 in Division III. Then known as the Golden Knights, they moved

to their current status in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly

Division I-A, in 1996.

Daunte Culpepper first put the program on the map with his

awesome athleticism and mobility in the 1997 and ’98 seasons. But

success was short-lived and often followed by disappointment.

The Knights were passed by for an invitation to the Big East in

2005 by rival South Florida. And when O’Leary led UCF to a 10-4

record and Conference USA title in 2007, finally seeming to put the

program back in the spotlight, there were only more setbacks.

The Knights finished 4-8 in 2008 and the following spring

tragedy struck when freshman receiver Ereck Plancher collapsed and

died during an offseason condition workout supervised by O’Leary

and his staff. The school has said trainers did everything they

could to save the player’s life. The Plancher family filed a civil

lawsuit that is still pending.

But the future has never looked brighter on the field.

Freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey, Miami-Dade County’s career

passing leader who was overlooked by the more established programs

because of his 5-foot-11 frame, has led the Knights to an average

of 41.4 points over their five-game winning streak. UCF lost to

North Carolina State and Kansas State early in the season.

”We felt that we were a Top 25 team all along, and making it

into the polls doesn’t change that,” defensive end David Williams

said.

Still, the thrill of seeing UCF ahead of Florida State and Miami

was special.

”It’s pretty neat to be ranked ahead of those guys,” offensive

lineman Jah Reid said.

The success couldn’t come at a better time, either.

Big East presidents unanimously agreed last week to expand the

number of football-playing schools from eight to 10. UCF, TCU from

the Mountain West Conference and Houston – another Conference USA

school – are potential candidates to receive an invitation to the

BCS automatic-qualifying conference.

Now the challenge becomes sustaining the success.

”You got to keep winning to stay where you need to stay,”

O’Leary said. ”Once you get into the Top 25, I’ve yet to see teams

win and not stay there. It’s when you don’t win you get

bumped.”