Knight battles K-State in Big XII opener
I still remember sitting in my car listening to Marc Daniels call for the last five minutes of the game. I begrudgingly delayed clocking into my weekend bartending gig at Universal. UCF missed two field goals and had to settle for three points on two other deep drives, allowing Kansas State to stay within striking distance the entire game. Quarterback Carson Coffman scored from seven yards out with 24 seconds to play, and UCF lost 17-13. The Wildcats drove the length of the field and scored in the final minute. I slammed my hand on the steering wheel in frustration sounding my horn and startling those around me.
A year removed from graduating and I had just returned to Orlando after a brief and failed stint in Atlanta trying to figure out my post-grad life. That tweener phase where college football season was your last tie to not fully yet being in the real world. You could still act irrationally about your alma mater and hit a tailgate as a fifth-year senior, and no one would bat an eye (Spoiler alert: you still can). At that point in my life, I had just broken up with my college sweetheart, a bit misdirected and not really in a good headspace. Saturday college football afternoons were a simple joy I latched on to as a great distraction to not have to answer what I wanted to do with my life at the time.
UCF took on Kansas State that afternoon in 2010, and even with our miscues we dominated the Wildcats in all phases. When you look back on that day, most of the conversation isn’t even about the game. That afternoon a superstorm rolled in for twenty minutes that even Midwesterners used to violent storms watched with worry, the strange-looking clouds rolling in from the northwest. A heavy rain fell soon after. By the time play was resumed after a delay of 1 hour, and 26 minutes, officials said more than half an inch of rain had fallen. Wild.
When I clocked in, I felt like I wanted to take a shot just to start my shift. Classic “UC-iF”. Why did I even care so much? We could never get it done consistently against a mid-tier Power Five team. That 2010 season we lost against NC State at home, down to the wire. A team we had beat in Raleigh in 2007 when I was in college on the back of Kevin Smith. September out-of-conference matchups at that time were paramount as a Group of Five team. That nomenclature didn’t even exist. We were on the outside of the BCS. Another close loss like Auburn in the ’90s. Phantom pass interference between the hedges. Missed a field goal in the Hawaii Bowl by Matt Prater. OT loss at home in the War on I-4.
Bruce Miller said it best that day: “We talked about all of the shoulda, coulda, wouldas and how we didn’t want it to come down to that again. We just didn’t make the plays at the end and that’s why we lost the game.” That loss will go down as one of my all-time heartbreakers for the Knights considering how they pushed around the Big-12-BCS Conference Wildcats around most of the day. UCF outgained K-State, 344-272, and did everything right, but win.
“Every time you lose a game you die a little and that’s the case with this one,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “It’s a tough one, but we had opportunities and couldn’t take advantage of them.” That’s a quote that has always stuck with me from our old salty dog. I did a lot of dying in the first half of that year. I felt like a loser in Atlanta, a bit rudderless and wandering before deciding to come back to familiar roots. A total shift in the peer group and I remember looking at my circumstances, thinking “This shit ain’t it.”
That season even though we left September 2-2, it proved to be one of the most successful seasons of our young football history. The only game we lost that year thereafter was Southern Miss and we played for our second conference championship. We won and went on to the Liberty Bowl where captured our first-ever Bowl win against Georgia. There was magic. In the back half of that year, I realized a lot of success as well. New friend group. New mindset. New purpose and focus on what I wanted to achieve. Found my career jumpstart and haven’t looked back since. Matthew McConaughey Buick commercials are right: sometimes you have to go back to go forward. Throughout that year I grew up a lot. Sometimes you have to taste your own blood a little bit, to really break through. UCF has paid its dues and between the thirteen years from that game and now realized greatness and gone from “UC-iF” to “UC-DID.” Now we roll into conference play. We have a shift in peers and a renewed purpose.
Throughout the last two years, I’ve developed friends in places I have never traveled to or met, sharing the mundane happenings of the day or the latest highlight on Monday Night Football. It’s a collective conscience of Big 12 fans laughing about Big Game Boomer rankings or sharing the latest realignment rumors. The multitude of group chat invites ranging from benign names such as “Yormark’s Army” or “Big 12 Commissioners” talking ball and sharing memes is one of my favorite things about our elevated competition. We all have that group chat stored in our phones with friends from different eras, the coworker you still talk to from two jobs ago that sticks like family, and your actual nuclear family asking what’s for dinner tonight. Life updates, a funny meme, or a hot take on something in pop culture.
One of the first interactions I ever had with any Big 12 fan was a Twitter handle by the name of Whitney_Hartman. Huge K-State fan. Whitney goes hard in the paint for her wheat woes, and there’s an argument to be made she could be considered the Matriarch of Powercat Football. I had asked if anyone had ever met Whitney or even tailgated with her and the only thing I got was this perfect response: “She’s a real chiller.” As a purveyor of good times and making new friends, I knew we’d get along swimmingly. Feel like this is the vibe for the entire Big 12 conference. We’ve all trauma bonded over not being included in whatever this next bourgeoise class of college football will be. The Hateful 8 paired with the Grateful 4. We’re here for a good time, not a long time.
I like the EMAW (Every Man’s a Wildcat) faithful. Glad they’re our first crack of the first Power Five matchup. That 2010 loss still burns inside me. Kansas State fans remind me of us, a lot. Passionate, loyal and a ferocious Twitter presence that doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Whitney was one of the first people that made this apparent. She grew up in a suburb of Kansas City and ironically comes from a long line of Rock Chalk. Her father played JUCO baseball and decided to buck family tradition and go to K-State. The rest is history. In getting to know Whitney I’ve learned she was actually at Bill Snyder Family Stadium that Saturday afternoon against UCF as a freshman in college. That storm that rolled in was one of her core memories of college that left an indelible impression. It’s wild to me that thirteen years later we’re connected by a conference affiliation, a love for our school and varying memories from that game day. Now I have a friend who was raised in Shawnee, Kansas. Who would have thought?
We head into the Little Apple this weekend to start another chapter in our short but meteoric rise. I have to be honest; I still can’t believe this is a conference game. I still glance at Memphis and Cincinnati box scores through the veil of how the three-man AAC standings are going to shake out to make the conference title game. As I scroll along, I see the Tulane Green Wave logo and think about last season’s crumble but then I look at the Big 12 logo next to our name and come back to earth. Life on the line, I could not tell you the teams that make up the American now.
We’ve moved beyond a point of “UC-iF” transforming into “Now You See…What If?” Our potential is being realized in real-time. I’m excited to make our Power Five conference debut. What if McKenzie Milton hadn’t decided to return for his exceptional sophomore season after getting homesick in 2016? What If George O’Leary didn’t tell President Hitt to challenge our 2013 post-season bowl ban? What if we walk into “The Bill” Saturday night and capitalize? What if we get crazy and make a run at the conference title and a trip to Arlington during our first year in the Big 12?
We’re a bit dinged up. So is K-State, who may be starting their next chapter with a dynamic freshman quarterback with luscious gold locks, Avery Johnson aka “Kansas Sunshine”. Forget a walk-off field goal win against Boise State or a walk-off field goal loss to Mizzou. This is league play now. There is a storm brewing in Central Florida and it’s making its way to the Flint Hills of the Sunflower State this weekend.
We’re 3-0 and chilling with a huge opportunity in front of us.
Good things happen when we play the defending Big 12 Champions.
We’re home. Let’s make ourselves comfortable.
‘Til next time take care of yourself and each other.