MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Three years ago to the day, Central Florida’s Knights were in the same city and stadium, holding the same record and facing the same kind of matchup they’ll get Friday.
UCF's Conference USA title this season was its second in four years. (Photo courtesy of UCF Sports Communications)
And for 58 minutes, they were even Mississippi State of the SEC. It wasn’t until Anthony Dixon scored with 1:54 remaining that the Bulldogs secured a 10-3 victory that continues to resound around a UCF program that has yet to win a bowl game.
“We had a lot of missed opportunities that game,” senior linebacker Derrick Hallman said Wednesday. “It hurt going home, knowing how well we played defensively.”
Friday’s Liberty Bowl against Georgia (6-6) will be the fourth bowl appearance in the brief NCAA FBS history of the program at UCF (10-3).
All three previous bowl trips have been since 2005 and under an accomplished veteran coach in George O’Leary. Based in talent rich Florida in a major city like Orlando, these Knights show all the signs of a program on the rise.
They’re Conference USA champions. They have four more victories than the Bulldogs. They’re ranked (No. 24 in the coaches’ poll; No. 25 in the BCS standings), while Georgia hasn’t been since the first month of the season.
And yet, the Bulldogs are favored by a touchdown.
“Not surprised at all,” said Hallman, who added, “We always play with a chip on our shoulder, because no matter who we beat or how many victories we have, everyone always doubts us. So we like being the underdog.”
“Whenever you’re the underdog, you get more anxious to play,” UCF sophomore cornerback Josh Robinson said. “You’re motivated. You have all that, and that’s something you won’t see lacking in this game. Effort, you won’t see that lacking, because we have that motivation that, ‘Man, we’ve got to beat this team.’”
Former Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary is 44-44 in his seventh season at UCF.
Robinson, who doubles as the Knights’ punt returner, is an example of the type of talented prospect that is now helping put UCF on map. A native of Sunrise, Fla., he was being recruited by Florida and said he held offers from the likes of Auburn and South Carolina when he chose to sign with UCF and stay close to home.
“I wanted to help make history and help a program,” Robinson said, “and that’s what I feel all the players on this team are trying to do.”
This is still relatively new for UCF, which didn’t officially join the top level of college football until 1996, when quarterback Daunte Culpepper was starring at the school. At the time, the high-water mark was a berth in the 1990 Division I-AA semifinals, where UCF lost 44-7 to Georgia Southern.
Twenty years and two Conference USA titles later, the Knights still are 0-for-3 in bowl games, losing a 49-48 overtime thriller to Nevada in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl, the 2007 Liberty Bowl meeting with MSU and last season’s St. Petersburg Bowl to Rutgers (45-24).
“Our first bowl win against a team like the University of Georgia,” UCF defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said. “I think it would just be huge for our players, our football program, our fan base and community.”
The down-to-the-wire MSU defeat was one of four SEC victories in the past four Liberty Bowls, but the score of each contest has been within eight points.
In 2007, UCF actually outgained MSU 219-199 and forced 11 punts, only to throw three interceptions and swallow a bitter defeat.
“I do think we’re better prepared this year,” senior defensive end Bruce Miller said. “I think we’re more of a balanced football team and do a lot of good things on both sides of the ball. The approach that we have to this bowl game, we’re not as excited and just happy to be in a bowl game. We’ve taken the approach of preparing to actually win this game. This is why we’re here: To play football and get a win.”
For their part, Georgia’s players contend that UCF isn’t the only team in Memphis with a point to prove in Friday’s game.
The Bulldogs are seeking to avoid their first losing record since 1996 and their first bowl loss since the 2005 season.
“I feel like we still have a lot to prove,” UGA linebacker Akeem Dent said. “They’re 10-3, Conference USA champs. We’re 6-6. Most people might look at the different conference and try to maybe think it’s a mismatch, but if they sit down and really watch the film on these guys, they have a real good football team. These guys are hungry.”
“We know they have tremendous talent down there,” UGA defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “We know that this ain’t going to be just a walk in the park. … We haven’t underestimated them one bit. We’ve treated them like we’re playing Florida, Georgia Tech, any other team. We’re ready.”