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Historic Team Spotlight 2023 - Bowl Season: Central Florida

UCF, a team that seems to find Tech at a crossroads

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Central Florida
Oh, it’s the previous #10 who played QB.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

This history is brought to you by Section 103, home of the most unique and comfortable Georgia Tech apparel. Get 10 percent off your next order with coupon code FTRS to order items such as the Feliz Bobby Dodd sweatshirt in time for the bowl game.

Writer’s note: I felt it fitting to don my Junior’s Grill shirt as I settle in for a sojourn through Georgia Tech history. Find this and more at Section 103 today!

A not-so-very-long time ago, in city not all that far away, there was nothing. Except a school; the school was already there. How it got there, well, that part is unclear. And on one fine day in October — October 14, 2017, to be exact — that school invented outer space. Welcome to the story of the University of Central Florida Citronauts Golden Knights, the school that, against logical odds, has been one of the defining narrative points of the last seven seasons of Georgia Tech football.

Before the university formerly known as Florida Technological University, but not to be confused with the Florida Institute of Technology, got around to the tiresome and exhausting effort of inventing space — or was it Space Day, who can remember — but after their initial adventure into the realm of public higher education, they decided to pursue high-level college athletics.

Many universities have attempted to leverage the allure of big-time athletics to improve their standing in public perception, which is perceived to have the effects of a virtuous cycle. Arguably, few schools have been as successful at achieving these aims as the University of Central Florida. To boot, I originally typed the word “academics” as the closing word of the previous paragraph, but to believe the most optimistic cheerleaders of athletics as a tool for improving a university, the pursuit of successful athletics as a “front porch” to a university begets better, more diverse academic offerings, a larger geographic footprint of students, alumni, and supporters, and knock-on effects in industry, funding, and politics. The rising tide of athletics, to these folks, lifts all boats.

Central Florida’s first college football team was a Division III outfit that first took the field in 1979. Interestingly, they played in the venue currently known as Camping World Stadium, then the Tangerine Bowl, even as a Division III outlet, which was an ambitiously large stadium when compared to its peers. This would prove to match the ambitions of the school, as it rose through several levels of NCAA bureaucracy in rapid succession, jumping to Division II in 1982 and Division I-AA (FCS) less than a decade later, with the final jump to FBS football coming in 1996.

I suppose one could say that, tangentially, these two schools first intersected on New Years’ Day 1991, the first time Tech played at UCF’s home stadium. This, of course, is a stretch, considering that UCF was in I-AA at the time and the opponents they vanquished that day on their way to the 1990 National Championship were the Nebraska Cornhuskers, but it is at least worth a mention. The first time the two met on the gridiron, though, was that first season the Knights were an FBS team in 1996.

Of note from that contest, the quarterbacks for both teams — true freshman Joe Hamilton and sophomore Daunte Culpepper — are instantly recognizable names for most football fans, while the 27-20 win moved Tech to 5-2 on the season but be their final win of what would prove to be a tough end of the season for a young team in O’Leary’s second full season at the helm. Hamilton would get another win under his belt against the Knights thanks to a 41-10 rout in 1999, while O’Leary finished 3-0 against UCF thanks to a 21-17 win the following season. O’Leary would finish his Tech career 52-33 and earn a share of the 1998 ACC title while on the Flats.

It is also certainly worth noting the man on the sideline for Georgia Tech during those three wins would earn himself a statue honoring him for his coaching achievements, albeit for the accomplishments he earned while coaching for the opponent. Despite an 0-11 first year, O’Leary finished with an 81-68 record with the Knights over twelve seasons as head coach, notching four conference titles, two ranked finishes, and a Fiesta Bowl win capping a 12-1 season in 2013 before resigning in 2015 after an 0-8 start to the season. O’Leary’s titles included a pair of Conference USA titles in addition to hosting the first-ever edition of the title game at the Citrus Bowl. I include this fact mostly to note that, when researching this article, I noticed that 17 different schools had appeared in the CUSA title game and that current members of the conference represent just 21 percent of all-time title game berths, which is a truly remarkable amount of turnover.

Getting back to the topic at hand, it becomes more obviously apparent that UCF continues to show up at critical junctures in Tech football history when looking at the more recent pair of meetings between the teams. Most fundamentally, the number of meetings in recent history should, in fact, be three, as the UCF Knights cancelled the 2017 edition of the series due to inclement weather and did not reschedule, leaving Tech without a twelfth game on the season and locked out of a bowl at 5-6. Personally, I maintain that Tech team was much better than their 5-6 record, seeing as they lost to Tennessee on a combination of hideously unfortunate turnover luck, lost to Miami on a series of bubble screens highlighted by an improbable helmet catch a few weeks later — I suppose this year’s result and Pressley Harvin’s 2019 touchdown pass were a bit of payback, perhaps — which otherwise would have had the team at 6-0 even without the UCF game, and would likely have prevented some of the wilt seen at the end of the season, though that is more personal speculation than anything. Also notable was the fact that the 2017 UCF team would finish the season 13-0. The issue of the perception of the later Paul Johnson years, given he was a year off a 9 win Gator Bowl season in which Tech defeated both the school in Athens and Virginia Tech on the road, remains valid question, especially acknowledging this game was not played.

UCF notched their first win against Tech in the fall of 2020, a game I remember as being much more plodding than the final score of 49-21 indicates, likely due to the scoreless third quarter. While not quite the prototypical example of the Geoff Collins Experience™ at Georgia Tech, it does remain in the running seeing how the game played out. During the game, Tech wasn’t outmatched terribly talent-wise and the Jackets scored early, yet went down a few scores over thanks in part to the offense turning the ball over five times, three of which were by Jeff Sims, including a fumble on 2nd and Goal. Tech clawed out of the deficit, making the game reasonably close in the fourth quarter before letting UCF blow things wide open to end the game.

Last season’s meeting between the two teams in Orlando is perhaps the clearest line in the sand, seeing as it represented the 37th and final game coached by Geoff Collins. Once again, Tech brought the margin within a score by the end of the third quarter, but it was a glaring special teams snafu that put the Knights that far ahead in the first place, and it would once again be a case of multiple unanswered scores to close out the game and put it out of reach for Tech. Collins ultimately finished his tenure with a 10-27 record at the helm of the Yellow Jackets, his successor Brent Key is currently 10-10 in the games that have come since.

Including the upcoming bowl game, it is a weird quirk of recent non-conference scheduling that the Jackets and Knights have squared up three times in the last four seasons, equivalent to the number of times Tech and the school from Athens have met on the gridiron. In the same period, Tech has faced Clemson annually and was scheduled to do the same with Miami, though COVID cancellations ultimately led to the final game of the 2020 season being cancelled. Tech also met Boston College, Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Virginia thrice during the period. The Jackets faced Florida State, Louisville, Syracuse, and VPISU just twice and have only played NC State and Wake Forest one since the onset of the pandemic.

It is readily apparent that the 2022 edition of this series was the prologue to the fifteen month arc which sent Tech on a roller coaster ride of extremely high highs and despondent lows on their path to a bowl. However, it is also worth noting that Key spent eleven seasons in Orlando on O’Leary’s staff, including a stint as the offensive coordinator, in addition to being on the field for those 1999 and 2000 wins. Ultimately, drawing UCF for the postseason finale is a fitting conclusion to the opening act of the Brent Key era.

Georgia Tech and UCF will face off in the sixth meeting between the two programs on the evening of December 22, 2023. Tune in here at From the Rumble Seat throughout the day for coverage via the gameday thread and the postgame recap, along with live updates via @FTRSBlog on Twitter.