Before We Walk College Football’s Red Carpet, We Need to Run the Blue Turf First
That was fun, huh? Season openers are always a blast. The excitement of what’s to come, along with the pilgrimage to the mecca of autumn cathedrals we so cherish. I was thoroughly impressed with our showing on Thursday evening. There was every excuse not to make that a raucous atmosphere. The remnants of Hurricane Idalia, a 7:00 pm kickoff on a work day before a long weekend, and the kingmaker’s choice of UCF Athletics always deciding to play SimCity with a new traffic pattern every year like we haven’t done this for nearly 20 years now. Regardless, we packed into our modest and proud stadium loudly and delivered an atmosphere that was modern, absolutely electric, and refreshed. Felt good to get through the motions and treat a tune-up game like a true tune-up game. We dominated, as we should have against a G5 team with zero returning starters on offense, and a handful on defense. Listen, I know we have a lot of variables at play with a new offensive coordinator, a gelling offensive line, a first-year defensive coordinator, a bevy of transfer portal talent, and elevated expectations. Your first time at anything is a little clumsy and you’re feeling things out. Good teams win, and great teams cover. We did that. It was fun. I had too much fun. And the weekend slate was the perfect backdrop for a chill Labor Day weekend.
Even though this was Malzahn’s third season opener here, it’s his first back in a Power Five league. I feel like he has a place back at the table he’s so yearned for. No more brooms closet post-game pressers or cringe “pressure cooker” questions. He’s seen what it looks like at the highest level. When Gus took this job, I think he felt we were right on the cusp of getting the call-up. Little did we know it’d be almost instantaneous. Before his first game on a UCF sideline, there were rumblings of us joining the Big 12. Remember that euphoric feeling that we were finally a part of the club? Our first game in the Gus Malzahn era was against Boise State at home. We were set to deliver an atmosphere much like we delivered this past Thursday night, but Mother Nature had different intentions. A 2-hour and 46-minute lightning delay quelled our excitement for the home opener in 2021. Huge game of chicken, if the game would even be played. I vividly remember the mud puddle I jammed my foot in walking over to Burger U thinking it just wasn’t meant to be. I was pissed at having a soaked sock, damp clothes, and an early morning the next day. I couldn’t bail on our first game as Power-Five-In-Waiting though.
A mish mosh of diehards and lushes huddled into Burger U as we waited for Twitter updates on what would be our first game as part of the club. Sure enough, we started the game, and just like that we were down 21-0. Our first whiff of college football’s upper tier and we just decided to crumble. UCiF. Gus was washed. Another P5 retread looking for a rehab stint in a successful place to parlay that into bigger things. I was distraught. The worst part about it? It’s against Boise State, arguably the finest archetype of a G5 team with incredible moxie that just wanted an opportunity to be included, and seized their glory when given it.
When I was a sophomore at UCF, Boise State was Cinderella’s story incarnate. They ran the WAC in 2006 with Chris Peterson as their first-year coach. They went undefeated and won one of the most iconic games in college football history with their Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma with a statue-of-liberty trick play in overtime. They were synonymous with sticking it to the establishment. I loved that. A school in Boise, Idaho playing an exciting, disruptive brand of football on a blue field. They continued their incredible run thereafter. Between 2008 and 2011 Boise State went 50-3, becoming the first FBS team ever to win 50 games over four years. Kellen Moore became the winningest quarterback in FBS history, passing Texas quarterback Colt McCoy. They were those dudes before other G5s of the 21st century tried to emulate their success.
That 2021 home opener game against Boise State I felt like we had imposter syndrome. Yes, we realized incredible success in our conference championship year runs since 2007, undefeated streak and NY6 Bowl wins. But Boise had been doing that for the longest and never got the call-up. And they still haven’t. Needed to show the college football world we belonged and now we decided to lay an egg. Alec Holler put us on the board first with a 23-yard catch and run touchdown. In the final minutes of the first half, I saw Dillon Gabriel with one of his gutsiest drives ever in a UCF uniform, scramble to find Titus Mokiao-Atimalala with one of the sweetest beans on a rope I’ve ever seen him spin. We were back in it 24-14 at the half. We stiffened up our defense in the second half holding the Broncos to only 7 points with three three-and-outs and a safety. We found our moxie in a rain-glistened 30% full Bounce House. Jaylon “flash in the pan” Robinson’s 21-yard catch put us ahead. Isaiah Bowser iced it with a 9-yard run touchdown. The game ended at 1:26 AM and we had our first win as an on-deck Power Five team. It took us two days to do it, but we did it. We belonged.
We need to bring that moxie and will to the Gem State this coming weekend (Yeah, I’m surprised that’s Idaho’s state nickname too). I don’t want to hear about altitude. I want to hear about attitude. Don’t talk to me about travel distances. We’re not headed to play at Albertsons Stadium on the Oregon Trail. Modern aviation exists. Gus Malzahn has not won a game outside of the Central or Eastern time zone for as long as he’s been a head coach. The one time he had an opportunity to do so was in Pasadena in 2014. Kelvin Benjamin said “Nope.” Our record for the last two years away from Orlando has been a bleak 6-7. Three of those wins have been inside the Sunshine State (Gasparilla Bowl, FAU 2022, cows 2022).
Show me “night and day.” Preferably the “day.” You would think for a QB who prides himself on being a great baseball player, he’d know how to slide. Infuriating to see, especially since we know how valuable his talent is and that in this league, you only go as far as your QB takes you. Just look at our league this past weekend. A 3 TD/2 INT ratio isn’t going to cut it. I’ve never been too much of a “rah-rah” conference pride guy. I’m happy to be amongst our peers, but they could all perish as long as UCF is successful. Ride our coattails if need be. This game at Boise is a must-win. Not for conference bragging rights, but for our headspace. Show me you can be a road warrior. Show me JRP can abuse this weak secondary with this “more vertical passing” you’ve integrated this entire off-season in hyped pressers. Show me that this senior-laden team has the pedigree to go out and take it. Show me that the dark horse’s name is Pegasus.
I want to see our team’s mental fortitude and how they respond to adversity. We had some great teams in the American. Loved our battles with Memphis for conference championships. We’ve built a sneaky nasty bubbling rivalry with Cincinnati to get to the AACCG. However, beyond a P5 OOC matchup in September or a game against those two, our mettle hasn’t been tested in REAL road game environments. Our first conference road game is against the defending conference champions in Manhattan. That place will be electric. How do our seniors respond to these moments? How do we handle our nutrition and rest, traversing three time zones for future league play? How do we compare depth-wise with schools that have benefitted from P5 resources for decades? The physicality we will be facing every week will wear on us and be a definite step up in competition.
What’s going to be our mentality? Are we just happy to take part, or are we ready to take over?
It all starts this weekend.
Just remember how we’d welcome P5 teams into Orlando as a G5.
We’re the Power Five Team now. Make a statement. Put these G5 darlings to sleep.
If we want to walk the red carpet of college football, we need to run the blue turf first.
‘Til next time, take care of yourself and each other.