So, What's Next for UCF?
The life of a Group of 5 (G5) team sure is grand, isn't it?
After a disappointing 6-4 season that ended with a 49-23 beatdown from BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl, UCF now finds itself without Athletic Director Danny White and head coach Josh Heupel. The duo is headed to the University of Tennesee in the hopes of repairing the derelict Power Five (P5) program.
Such is the life of a fan of a G5 team. They watch their team excel, perhaps for a year or two, until a P5 program down in the dumps comes in and poaches their staff. Due to the financial differences between the schools, the G5 team almost always loses, and they are left to start anew. That is until it happens again in a few years if they're lucky.
So the question remains. What's next for UCF? Surprisingly, they're still optimistic despite being gutted.
The Loss of Danny White
It's no secret that UCF's loss of Danny White probably stings the most. White's dedication to promoting UCF as a top-tier football program will be insurmountable. This Facebook Case Study conducted in 2018 summarizes UCF's content change over time while White was the AD.
UCF hired White in 2015, replacing interim AD and owner of the reddest nose in CFB, George O'Leary. Most fans agree that while O'Leary was essential in building a team environment, it was time for a facelift. White spent the better part of five years rebranding UCF Athletics into a 21st-century powerhouse to match its new-aged, modern campus feel.
Taking the important parts from his failed rebranding scheme at the University of Buffalo, White rebranded UCF as, "Orlando's Hometown Team." This time, fans latched on to his message. They donned the phrase on everything from t-shirts to car magnets. His second major action was overseeing the hiring of Scott Frost to coach the football program. Frost brought a fast-paced, run-n-gun, style of offense that juxtaposed O'Leary's smash-mouth style. Fans loved it.
And for good reason, too. Frost took the football team from 0-12 to 13-0 in just two years. It was an impressive turnaround for anyone, let alone a G5 team. White took it a step further.
After UCF clinched a win in the 2017 Peach Bowl, defeating Auburn 34-27, White was in a six-second video that changed the course of UCF's brand.
While media outlets and Twitter debated his statement (and still do today), he doubled down. On January 7, 2018, the day before the College Football Invitational championship game, he announced UCF would claim the 2017 national championship, hang a national title banner, and hold a national championship parade. The effect currently still lingers, as pundits and teams debate playoff expansion.
When the University of Nebraska came calling for their child, White hired then-Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to lead the football team. Heupel touted a similar, but different, offensive style akin to Frost. The style focused more on speed and long sideline passes rather than a style resembling a hyper run-pass option.
White's departure to Tennessee came nothing short of surprising. First came initial outrage. Tennessee had already ransacked UCF for its prized possession, an AD that stood by the little guy's side. With the outrage came the additional stages of grief:
Denial: "This can't be! Why is he doing this? It's a smokescreen!"
Bargaining: "Please don't leave. You love UCF!"
Depression: "Bye-bye relevancy, hello obscurity!" Acceptance: "It was only a matter of time before a P5 team came along and took him. Get your money, Danny! Thank you!" (See the cycle?)
Now, White is in charge of the athletic program at the University of Tennessee, a program desperately in need of a rebranding. While they do have more money than UCF, is it the best move? Right now, they're wading through the muck of Mcdonald's bags. If White emerges from the other side unscathed, however, he could add another level to his prominence.
The Loss of Josh Heupel
As White bolted to Tennessee, he decided to take coach Josh Heupel with him. This decision has led to both outrage, confusion, and joy when it was announced.
White's first order of business for good ol' Rocky Top was finding a coach to replace Jeremy Pruitt. At this point, it was pretty obvious Tennessee used its most recent scandal as a way to dismiss Pruitt without being responsible for his buyout. Heupel was an interesting hire.
While there isn't any concrete evidence, it was pretty obvious Heupel wasn't the first choice. His resume Is mediocre at best. He boasts a vibe of, "we have a cool offense! But we lack in defense and discipline." Heupel drove UCF from 12-1, to 10-3, to 6-4 in three years. In 2020, UCF finished with the best total offense in the nation when counting teams who played eight games or more (568.1 yards per game). However, they finished 118th in penalties (74.80 yards per game) and 123rd in Total Defense (491.8 yards per game). This, along with an off-field issue, led to questions surrounding Huepel's disciplinary practices. He was certainly not the flashy hire that fans had hoped for.
Plus, UCF fans (and players) appear oddly joyful that Heupel is gone. It's almost as if this is a fresh start for a solid program that has the pieces in place to win and win now. Several players, including electric sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel (3,570 yards, 32 TDs, 4 INTs) have been vocal over the past week about Huepel's departure. On Jan 29, Gabriel once again threw shade towards Heupel leaving. The tweet came after 4-star wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala committed to UCF despite AD and head coaching vacancies.
First, UCF needs an athletic director. While speculations are abundant, the most apparent front runner appears to be interim AD Scott Carr. Carr has received praise for setting records in revenue generation over his tenure. Since 2016, he's been essential in brand advancement as well.
Second, and perhaps the most interesting, will be who is going to get the UCF football head coaching gig. According to several outlets, this job is a complete 180-degree turn from the Tennessee head coaching position. It's in high demand. Coordinators and old coaches looking to a fresh start are apparently chomping at the bit to get an interview. Who can blame them? UCF has the funds, the weather, is located in a prime recruiting area, and has an established team that's hungry to return to glory. Not to mention, they realistically have a better shot than most P5 teams of making it to a New Year's Six Bowl game. Names are ranging from Scott Frost (again) to Gus Malzahn (yikes) and Gene Chizik. But, the players have been vocal about one name in particular.
Over the past week or so, both players and fans have attempted to get, "We Want Lebby" trending on Twitter. This is referring to current Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who served as UCF's quarterbacks' coach/offensive coordinator during the 2018 and 2019 college football seasons. Lebby has a rapport with Gabriel and a lot of the offensive pieces already. He's also earned the praise of former UCF players, such as McKenzie Milton, tight end Michael Colubiale, and offensive tackle Wyatt Miller. All have shown support for UCF to hire Lebby.
Nevertheless, it doesn't appear as if UCF is going to be down for very long. Though there may be some bumps along the way, Knights fans should remain optimistic about the future. After all, they are one of the biggest college football programs in the state. And fans believe they're at least going to be better off than the Volunteers.