ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — UCF came into this season used to being overlooked nationally as it chased meaningful attention in a football landscape that includes three more tradition-rich in-state programs.
Now, following an upset of a top-10 team, the Knights must quickly get used to a new life with a target on their backs.
UCF entered the national rankings Sunday at No. 21 in The Associated Press poll and No. 25 in the Coaches’ poll. It is the Knights’ first rankings since the final polls in 2010.
But more importantly, at its halfway point UCF (5-1, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) is now the front runner to capture the league’s at-large berth to the BCS, armed with a relatively soft schedule the rest of the regular season. They host winless Connecticut on Saturday.
“(The players) probably think they should have been ranked at the beginning of the year,” Knights coach George O’Leary said Sunday, smiling. “But I won’t make a big thing about that, because they know the ultimate goal hasn’t changed. I keep waving in front of them that it’s to win the conference. That’s what we’re concerned about, and wherever we end up in the rankings if we win the conference, it’ll be great.
“But the conference and to win the conference championship is the No. 1 goal in this football program each and every week.”
UCF is 4-0 away from Orlando this season, its best road start in program history. The Knights chances to secure the AAC’s BCS berth will come mostly in friendly confines, though. Four of their final six games at home.
Also, with the exception of Houston (at UCF on Nov. 9) and rival South Florida (at UCF on Nov. 29), who both are 2-0 in AAC play, the remaining four opponents on Knights’ schedule are just 1-6 in conference play.
The new attention and BCS projections are all flattering, sure, but it is not a daydream O’Leary is particularly interested in entertaining at this point.”
“Not really,” O’Leary said. “I spoke to the team last week (and) said this is a conference game and if you win this one you control your own destiny. You don’t have to worry about someone else beating somebody; you just got to take care of business each week. The players understand that. They really do.”
The Knights are the second-youngest team in the country with only eight seniors, but have gotten lots of leadership so far from a junior class that includes quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, who both came up big in the Louisville victory.
Likewise, a win at Penn State and three-point loss to South Carolina has helped his team grow up in a hurry, O’Leary said. He expects them to take on the new challenge well because of that experience.
“It’s a young team, but it’s a very mature team as far as taking what they read and taking what they see on TV, and understanding that not every team is the same,” O’Leary said. “And every team handles things different. And we have to handle it a certain way, because we’re young at certain positions that play need to be overachievers right now in this program.”
About 200 fans greeted the Knights when they arrived just before 4 a.m. Saturday after the Louisville victory, a reception not previously seen to that extent by a fan base that was enjoying the program’s first victory over a Top 10 team.
It’s ushered in a new reality, though, and one O’Leary has already spoken to his assistants about reinforcing this week.
“It was a great win, but you got to build on the win,” he said. “We played one game at a time and that game’s over. We’ve enjoyed the win, but now you’ve got each week (where) you’re the target. So you better understand that.”