Case in point: The highlights from said game, a 29-17 win in the Gasparilla Bowl in December, were playing inside the Bounce House before the UCF spring game last month. Without question that victory gave UCF a boost in numerous ways -- on the recruiting trail, with its fan base and maybe most importantly for the program as a whole as it prepares to head into the Big 12.
Year 1 under coach Gus Malzahn was not exactly seamless. In fact, it was among the most challenging Malzahn had ever faced. On the field, starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel was lost for the season in Week 3, one of many key injuries across the roster, including one to Malzahn himself.
Malzahn coached the final three games of the regular season from an elevated platform above the sideline after he broke his leg in early November when a player ran into him while celebrating a big play against Tulane. Malzahn finished coaching the game, not knowing he had a broken leg.
Mixed in among the injuries, wins and losses, UCF announced it was leaving the American Athletic Conference to join the Big 12, then watched as fellow conference member Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 program to make the College Football Playoff, something UCF lobbied hard for following its own undefeated seasons in 2017 and 2018.
UCF finished the 2021 regular season 8-4, and it felt the ground the program had gained as the preeminent Group of 5 team had been ceded to the Bearcats, who will be joining the Knights in the Big 12. UCF has not appeared in the American conference championship game since 2018.
So it makes sense why the bowl win, and finishing with nine wins in a season filled with so many ups and downs, was especially meaningful as a springboard not only into 2022 but into its long-term future.
"It was big in a lot of ways," Malzahn said. "It helped us in recruiting. That and going to the Big 12, I think that combination. Recruits come on campus, and you can just see the atmosphere around that something really special is about to happen. You can kind of feel it, and you can feel it within our players and our staff. I really feel like recruits can sense that. A lot of people like being a part of something, instead of just plugging in to keep something going."
Off the field, the year was filled with personal hardships for the Malzahn family. During the season, his daughter was hospitalized in Alabama following complications after giving birth. She has since recovered.
Then after the season ended, his wife, Kristi, was hospitalized with an infection that left her battling for her life in the intensive care unit at an Orlando hospital for 12 days in January. She, too, has since recovered. But the days spent in the hospital were filled with fear, anxiety and the unknown as Malzahn began to reconsider all his priorities.
"She's been healthy her whole life," Malzahn said. "It still blows my mind that happened to her. It really made me look back and start to realize this football is not near as important. I really hope it will make me a better person, a better leader. I'm looking at life differently."
What has not changed is what comes next.
UCF, Cincinnati and Houston are currently in negotiations to leave the American and join the Big 12 for the start of the 2023 season. To that end, athletic director Terry Mohajir and Malzahn know that to compete in the Big 12, UCF has to ramp up every aspect of the program, both on and off the field.
There are plans in the works to create a $50 million "football campus," with upgrades to the current facilities, coaches' offices, stadium and practice fields.
Mohajir said fundraising is ongoing, and he will make a presentation to the board of trustees this month to move discussions along on architecture, construction and management services. As part of the plans, Mohajir will also present a business model for the facility, including opportunities to rent out areas of the football campus for corporate outings, cocktail receptions, lecture series and more -- something he did at his previous stop at Arkansas State.
The key difference in Orlando is UCF's ability to have a much bigger reach than just the local market, which would help further expand its brand and revenues.
"The football campus is not just a facility, it's a revenue-generating opportunity for us as well that will help pay for the facility," Mohajir said.
To help crystallize how far UCF has to go compared to other Big 12 members, the school put together a website called Mission XII that lays out where the athletic department ranks in operating revenue and fundraising.
Despite its recent success, UCF ranks No. 8 among nine public schools in operating revenue in the "new" Big 12 that will include Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Iowa State, West Virginia, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Houston, Baylor, BYU and TCU. In fiscal year 2020, UCF had an operating budget of $64 million, ranking between Cincinnati and Houston. Kansas' budget is close to $100 million.
To lead the Big 12 in this area, UCF would have to increase its budget by $33.8 million per year. On the fundraising front, UCF has the largest living alumni base of any program in the new-look Big 12, according to the school. But only about 2.2% of those alumni (7,496) are current donors.
Increasing both that percentage and the size of the average donation ($1,816, second-to-last in the Big 12) are among the biggest priorities on the fundraising front. Mohajir is hopeful of making gains, especially after being a part of the raucous environment at the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, where a large contingent of UCF fans helped sell out the bowl for the first time in its history.
"What it showed is we're awake, and we're not going back to sleep," Mohajir said. "If we can just elevate our average gift size about another $400 and then bring that total number to 10,000, which is our short-term goal, I think that'll help generate even more revenues to help get us where we need to be to compete in the Big 12."
As for what is happening on the field, Malzahn is trying to build the foundation for the move to the Big 12 through recruiting. The goal is for 75% of his key additions every year to be high school players, with the other 25% coming through the transfer portal.
The team returning for 2022 is a good mix of both. Quarterback remains unsettled as Mikey Keene and Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee compete for the job, but both players have starting experience, Keene having replaced Gabriel a season ago as a true freshman.
Returning veterans such as running backs Isaiah Bowser and Johnny Richardson, receiver Ryan O'Keefe and safety Quadric Bullard, combined with transfers Kobe Hudson, Kemore Gamble and Terrence Lewis, give the Knights the optimism to believe they will be much better than a year ago.
"We understand what we accomplished last year, but we're on to bigger and better things this year," O'Keefe said.
"Hopefully that College Football Playoff," O'Keefe said. "Cincinnati did their thing, but we have the potential to be the Cincinnati of this conference this year. We're preparing ourselves and trusting in Coach Gus, and Coach Gus is trusting in us."
The irony in his words is not lost, considering UCF had back-to-back undefeated regular seasons before Cincinnati did. But O'Keefe makes an important distinction. Seeing Cincinnati make it into the playoff served as extra motivation.
"We always had that confidence, but just watching Cincinnati actually break through the barrier and get there, that helped inspire us even more," O'Keefe said. "Just seeing that, we attacked this offseason even more than we did last year because we saw there's a possibility that we can get there. Coach Gus, he preaches this is the future of college football, and I really feel like this area is."
The only significant change to the coaching staff is at offensive coordinator, where Malzahn hired Chip Lindsey to replace G.J. Kinne as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Lindsey and Malzahn have a long history together, which should help ease the transition.
"We're a top-25 team talent-wise, but can you get there?" Malzahn said. "You've got to win out like Cincinnati did, but we've got a chance. That's what I told our guys. Now, what does that mean? It means we have to work our butts off. But it's exciting to say we have a chance. I didn't know what to expect last year.
"I know what I have now. We feel really good going into this year."