ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — 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.
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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.”