ORLANDO, Fla. >> Josh Heupel, the head football coach at the University of Central Florida, was on a recruiting trip several months ago when his wife called and asked when his next flight was.
There was no flight. He was simply driving to Jacksonville, a couple hours from UCF’s Orlando campus.
“Last year during recruiting, I got on maybe four flights total,” said Heupel, who put in years as a recruiting road warrior when he was an assistant at Oklahoma and Missouri.
Florida, after all, has the highest percentage of high school players who are recruited by a Division I team, the most blue-chip recruits of any state, and is by many other metrics the best state in the country in which to set up a college football team. And that makes UCF the current definition of disruption in college football.
Still, undefeated UCF is probably the fourth- or fifth-best-known team from the state, a directional school celebrating its 50th anniversary, whose football program has played in college sports’ top tier for barely two decades. Its league, the American Athletic Conference, distributes to its members a small fraction of the windfall from media deals the biggest conferences deliver to their schools.
Three years ago, UCF went 0-12. Yet the No. 10 Knights are, for a second year in a row, the best team in the state and one of the best anywhere else. In the last five years they have won two New Year’s Day bowl games. They hold the longest active win streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision, at 19 games. They are led by quarterback McKenzie Milton, a Mililani High graduate.
Last year, after the Knights went undefeated, they won the AAC and then beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl. They claimed a national championship, even though they were left out of the four-team College Football Playoff and were ranked sixth in the final Associated Press poll. The NCAA has formally recognized UCF’s title alongside Alabama’s.
This year the offense is ranked third in yards and seventh in points per game. It is worth noting that a game at North Carolina was called off after Hurricane Florence, and the Knights have trounced mostly weak competition (including one Power Five team, Pitt), and barely survived Memphis last weekend.
“I often say that reputation lags reality,” said Dale Whittaker, the UCF president. He was referring to the university as a whole, but it might apply to the football team especially.
As for football, “Our competitive advantages are very real,” said Danny White, the university’s athletic director.
“Who doesn’t want to be here?” said Richie Grant, a defensive back from Fort Walton Beach. “Like, it’s supposed to be fall, winter, something like that? And it’s, what, 90 degrees out here?”
Florida being Florida, there will always be a surplus of talent.
“They may not be big enough for Florida or Miami to go after them, but they’re still going to be fast or strong,” said Luke Stampini, a Delray Beach-based recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
These athletes, then — rawly gifted, but not as purely talented as those who end up at the in-state blue bloods — may need specific schemes built around them, but White conceived the potential for a “moneyball”-esque strategy as he watched Baylor and Texas Christian routinely defeat Texas and Texas A&M the past decade with innovative game plans.
When he arrived in late 2015, White sought a coach who would install a quick tempo to complement the athletes’ physical speed. He got Scott Frost, who had been an assistant at Oregon to Chip Kelly, known for his creativity and fast pace.
At Oregon, Frost had tutored Marcus Mariota, the Tennessee Titans starting quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy after his final year with the Ducks. Mariota, a Saint Louis alum, is revered in his native state of Hawaii, and so Milton, a talented Class of 2016 quarterback from Mililani, was receptive to Frost’s entreaties. But Oregon never offered Milton a scholarship.
“He’s small,” Stampini said of Milton. “If he was 6-2, the whole Pac-12 would have been after him.”
When Frost took the UCF job, Milton flipped his commitment from Hawaii. Last season he threw for more than 4,000 yards, with 37 touchdowns against nine interceptions, adding 613 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground.
Frost departed last offseason for Nebraska, his alma mater. White turned to Heupel, who ran the Air Raid offense as Oklahoma’s national-title-winning quarterback for then-offensive coordinator Mike Leach.
Heupel hired as defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, a former player and longtime assistant at Miami and then Florida with vital in-state ties. He got recruits on the phone the night of their first news conference, Heupel said.
UCF now has a 45,000-seat stadium and an array of new and planned facilities: a development center, a nutrition center, a scheduled lazy river. The construction is financed through debt, donations and athletics revenue, White said, along with student fees that average out to under $200 per semester, according to Josh Boloña, the student government president.
With 68,000 students, the school is set to collect roughly $25 million in fees this year.
UCF finishes the regular season against No. 20 Cincinnati and then down Interstate 4 at South Florida, currently ranked 21st. Win out, and it will get a conference championship game against strong competition, but will it be strong enough to impress the playoff committee?
Snubbing UCF last year, the playoff committee argued that “they had not been as challenged with their nonconference schedule, and their schedule overall, as teams right above them and right below them,” in the words of chairman Kirby Hocutt, who is Texas Tech’s athletic director.
White felt this was disrespectful not only to UCF but to its league, which counted two other teams in the final AP rankings. This past weekend, undefeated Notre Dame moved up a spot in the AP poll, to No. 4, after barely beating Pitt — the same squad UCF torched by 31 points a few weeks before. AAC teams, from top to bottom, are 7-8 versus Power Five teams this year.
Two years ago, UCF was one of several finalists for spots in the Big 12 before that conference elected not to expand. The next expansion era likely won’t occur until the middle of next decade, when several broadcast deals are set to expire. The AAC is preparing to negotiate a new deal now. Its agreement with ESPN expires in 2020.
White said the AAC merits inclusion in a “Power 6” setup for the FBS. For now, though, the Knights must win all their games and hope a payoff will come.
“People are going to look at this conference, look who we played, crossover games, look at scores,” Heupel said, “and I think we’ll be where we want to be.”