UCF thinks it can compete with No. 14 Ohio State
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP)
Heading into the 2012 season, Central Florida coach George O'Leary knew his team would already be playing with a deficit before it even stepped on the field.
NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations within both the football and basketball programs led to the announcement of one-year postseason bans for both just days before the Knights began fall practice.
They won't find out the fate of an appeal of that ban until later this season. But bowl ban or not, O'Leary still sees an opportunity as the heavy underdog Knights prepare for Saturday's matchup at No. 14 Ohio State.
A win would give the Knights their first ever victory as a Football Bowl Subdivision member over a ranked, nonconference opponent.
''I like playing nonconference games against tradition schools like Ohio State that have a great, long history of winning (and) a great tradition as far as the program's concerned,'' O'Leary said. ''But we go into every game with an opportunity to win it.
''That's what I told our players at the beginning of the season, was that we expect to play 14 games this year. And you go into each game with an opportunity to win it. Now we have to perform to get that done.''
Before O'Leary's arrival in 2004, the Knights' only victory over a team from a Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying conference was against Alabama in 2000.
The program turned a big corner in 2007 when it earned its second against N.C. State en route to the Conference USA championship. They followed that up in 2010 with an 11-win season, another C-USA title and by capturing their first bowl victory, over Georgia.
Still, O'Leary has frequently maintained that true sustainability will come only when the Knights can begin to earn consistent nonconference victories over BCS foes.
''It's why you play in Division I football is to play in games like this,'' O'Leary said. ''That's the challenge I'll pose to the team.''
There's no question that beating the Buckeyes will be difficult.
The Knights last played a ranked nonconference opponent in 2009, when they lost 35-3 at Texas. And the last time UCF faced an Urban Meyer coached team was 2006, when Florida pounded the visiting Knights 42-0.
Meyer has a new team this time around, but one that has been just as dominant against nonconference visitors.
In total, the Buckeyes have won 58 consecutive regular-season nonconference home games against teams not ranked in the Top 25. Coincidentally, the last loss was to a Florida school: a 34-17 defeat to a Bobby Bowden Florida State team in 1982.
But what will make it harder for the Knights to follow suit is O'Leary's announcement Tuesday that starting running back Latavius Murray will likely be out Saturday after bruising a shoulder in the Knights' season-opening win at Akron.
Murray rushed 14 times for 109 yards and a touchdown before the injury. He was relieved by Miami transfer and redshirt sophomore Storm Johnson, who ran for just 36 yards, but had a pair of scores.
Murray didn't practice at all Tuesday and O'Leary said that Johnson would likely start in Murray's place against the Buckeyes with senior Brynn Harvey also getting action.
Whoever is in the backfield, if the Knights are going to have any success against a bigger and quick Buckeyes' defense, it will depend on how well sophomore quarterback Blake Bortles plays in his second career start. Bortles is coming off a three-touchdown performance against Akron.
With or without one of their top offensive threats, UCF's players are mostly playing down the potential significance of the matchup. Even as early odds makers out of Las Vegas list the Knights as a 17.5-point underdog.
''We can't control what people outside of the program think about the game or think about what could happen,'' Bortles said. ''All we can do is control what we do. We're going to go out there and try and execute what we do and come out with a W. We could care less what the line or the spread is.''
Still, recruiting over the past three years has increased significantly, and unlike in previous seasons, UCF has more than one or two players capable of making game-changing plays.
''I think players win big games,'' O'Leary said. ''I think coaches try to get them in the right spots. But players have to make plays in big games. That's what it's all about. ... Our big players are going to have to play great and our players that are average are going to have to be good.''
It's all adding up to an understated, but definite confidence among players in the Knights' locker room.
''A win is a win,'' offensive lineman Theo Goins said. ''You definitely go out to win, you don't want to lose. All of that stuff that's around it - Top 25, the school that you're playing - that's just hype. You strap on your pads, you put on your pants and you go play football.''
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower .