Don’t think for one second that the Florida Gators are going to run out on the field Saturday evening thinking their game with the UCF Golden Knights is just a little tune-up before the real games begin next week in Knoxville. The Gators are taking this game seriously and well they should. UCF has adapted the personality of its coach and George O’Leary won’t back down from anyone.
There was a time when UCF would have been considered a tune-up game but that was pre-O’Leary, back when the Golden Knights were scheduling way over their heads because they could make more money on the road than they could by playing a home game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. The crowds at the Citrus Bowl are getting better but they still aren’t standing room only and UCF still needs games like the one Saturday night at The Swamp with the Gators to keep the athletic department budget out of the pink. But by no means is this a thank you for the beating, we’ll take our pounding and our six-figure paycheck with a smile opponent.
The reason is O’Leary, who is in the process of not just turning around the UCF football program, but changing the entire football culture. This school of 45,000 students is located in East Orlando, far from downtown and the Disney inspired westward sprawl. It’s a commuter school that doesn’t have the kind of campus feel that you get in places like Gainesville or Athens or Tuscaloosa. There is an on-campus stadium that’s being built, a cost efficient no-frills, 40,000-seater that’s pre-fab construction. It won’t be a palace, but it will be a place the Golden Knights can call their own and it’s a full 20 miles closer to the campus than the Citrus Bowl.
Meanwhile, UCF is going about football without great facilities and a stadium to call its very own and playing on the road at places like Florida, one of the most hostile environs in all of college football and one of the least likely for a road team to leave with a win. There are plenty of built-in excuses here but O’Leary won’t hear any of them. He doesn’t believe in excuses. He thinks you go out on the field with what you have and if you’ve worked harder and want it worse, you can win.
He’s got a pretty good track record of succeeding with that frame of mind. He did it at Georgia Tech where he missed out on the best players in the talent-rich Atlanta metro area because they couldn’t meet Tech’s high academic standards. He didn’t have the greatest facilities, either, but that didn’t keep the Yellow Jackets from playing in bowl games and winning their fair share of battles against really good teams.
He’s doing it at UCF. The Golden Knights went 0-11 his first year when he came in and cleaned house. Last year, his second on the job in Orlando, he went 8-5 and took UCF to its first ever bowl game. They’re 1-0 this year and even though their first victim is a D-IAA opponent, this is a team that should not be overlooked. You could even say they’re dangerous.
Most of the players on their roster are guys that weren’t recruited by Florida, Florida State or Miami. A whole bunch of them can play, guys like Joe Burnett of Eustis, a freshman All-America last year that picked off five passes and ran two punts back for touchdowns. He could start anywhere in the country but he’s at UCF and he wasn’t recruited by the state’s big three. What do you want to bet he’ll have one of the larger chips on his shoulder Saturday night?
There will be a lot of players with very large chips on their shoulder. This is their chance to prove that they are capable of playing with the big boys. This is their chance to prove that they were disrespected when they were in high school. They’ll feel that way because the great high school players in the state of Florida do not grow up dreaming that one day they’re going to play for the UCF Golden Knights. They do grow up dreaming that they will be Gators, Seminoles or Hurricanes and these guys will remember the disappointment when there were no invitations to join the party in Gainesville, Tallahassee or Coral Gables.
So bet the ranch that George O’Leary has been pounding it and pounding it since practice began in August that this is the chance of a lifetime, to go into one of college football’s most famous stadiums and stick it to one of those teams that told you that you just weren’t good enough even if did bleed orange and blue all your life. Bet the ranch that the UCF Golden Knights are coming into The Swamp figuring they have nothing at all to lose and everything in the world to gain. Lose and everybody says they should have. Win, however, and suddenly, maybe some of those kids in the state of Florida that are going to one day fill up the blue chipper lists of recruiting services will think “Hmmm … UCF. I could see myself playing for UCF someday.”
Win and suddenly it’s a statement that UCF is here to stay. Win and it’s “Big Three Is History” because the Golden Knights have elbowed their way into a place they’ve never been invited. That’s the statement that George O’Leary wants to make and that’s exactly why the Florida Gators have to be totally focused and ready to do business.
Typically, game two for the Gators is a tune-up for game three, which nine times since 1993 has been Tennessee. Florida-Tennessee in week three is usually one of the biggest games in all of college football in the month of September and typically, the Gators schedule someone they can pound into submission. In the nine times that the Vols have been Florida’s game-three opponent since 1993, the Gators have gone 9-0 in week two. Average score of those nine wins for Florida: 53-10.
UCF was one of those tuneup games a few years ago. The Knights brought Daunte Culpepper to show off in The Swamp in 1999. A couple of late UCF touchdowns made the score a more respectable 58-27. UCF went back to Orlando bruised but with a big fat paycheck to cash.
That was then and this is now. The Golden Knights will arrive at The Swamp this time really believing they can win. They can say they thought they could do it back in 1999, but anyone that spins that yarn would also tell you that the 1969 moon landing is one of the big hoaxes of our time, that it was filmed in secret in a Hollywood studio. This year they are enough of a threat that not even the managers mixing up the Gatorade better be thinking ahead to week three in Knoxville.
UCF will come into this game with the same game plan used by every O’Leary team every time out: establish the running game between the tackles to both eat up clock and force the safeties to commit to stopping the run. Once the safeties are forced to respect the run, go over the top and make big pass plays in the seams. Defensively, don’t give up anything deep and make the quarterback pay every time he drops back to pass.
What Florida cannot afford to do is let UCF run the football. The Gators have to make sure that the Golden Knights are in second and long and third and long all night long. If Florida stuffs the run, the Gators take away the play action which is the staple of UCF’s passing game. If Florida forces the Knights to throw the ball, then Jarvis Moss, Ray McDonald and Derrick Harvey can make life miserable for UCF quarterback Steven Moffett.
Offensively, Florida needs to use its superior speed and its superior size up front to its advantage. UCF’s corners are fast and they can cover but Florida spreads the field and that means UCF has to decide to bring in more corners or let the safeties and linebackers try to cover. Put a safety or a linebacker on Bubba Caldwell or Percy Harvin or Cornelius Ingram and it just won’t be fair. Bring in corners and you’re asking the Gators to rev up a ground game that includes the wide sweeps and inside reverses with Harvin, Caldwell and Jarred Fayson.
Chris Leak’s job is to walk up to the line of scrimmage and count bodies. When he sees one-on-one coverage on Dallas Baker or one of his fast wide receivers, that’s where he has to go. If he sees the Knights are so spread out that they can’t handle the speed on a sweep, he’s got to get the ball in Harvin’s hands. If the Knights are dropping seven to cover, he’s got to let his big guys up front open holes for DeShawn Wynn and let the big tailback punish them.
On special teams, the Gators have a real task in stopping Burnett, who averaged 16.5 yards per punt return last year. The Gators gave up zero return yards to Southern Miss in game one and they have to have another performance like that because Burnett is very capable of changing games by altering the field position battle to UCF’s favor. Watch for Reggie Nelson to either break a punt return or come very close to it and if Brandon James is returning kickoffs, Florida could get a real lift there.
FEARLESS FORECAST: Florida will come out of the tunnel focused and ready to play. Defensively, the Gators will shut down the line of scrimmage and force UCF to abandon the running game early. Offensively, it may take the Gators a half before they get into a good rhythm but once they do, look for Leak and Dallas Baker to hook up for some big gainers. Watch for Jemalle Cornelius to get deep early. Let’s go with something like Florida 35, UCF 14 in a game that might be closer than the score would indicate.