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.