A few years ago, a trip to Columbia for UCF would be just another game. It would be an exciting test against a ranked Missouri team, but the result would have caused little impact on where the Knights ended the season.
This year, the landscape of college football and UCF's success has flipped the script. If the Knights want to live up to new expectations, Mizzou is as much of a must win as any week three game can be.
Losing the opener to Penn State put the Knights behind the eight ball for the 2014 season. The race to the Access Bowl leaves very little room for error.
No longer is a conference championship the ultimate in Black and Gold land. Winning the American will get you a trip to St. Pete, Birmingham, or some other city that hosts a bowl game with a forgettable name.
After breaking down the door to the establishment with a Fiesta Bowl win, an Access Bowl berth is what the UCF fan base and many in the media see as the new benchmark. Getting to one of the top six games means the Knights have to be viewed as the best non-Power Five team.
I believe that a one loss UCF team would get the edge over an undefeated Marshall or practically anyone else, but would a two-loss squad get the same benefit of the doubt? There is just too much competition from teams in the MAC, C-USA, and Mountain West, not to mention the potential pitfalls that could loom in the American.
The Thundering Herd, UTSA, Nevada, Northern Illinois, or any number of other teams could be stiff competition for the at large position. UCF's strength of schedule is bound to factor in, but not if they do not make a statement with that tough non-conference slate.
Beat the Tigers on Saturday and the Knights reassert themselves as the favorite to get that coveted "best of the rest" spot among college football's big boys. Lose and the path to the Fiesta, Cotton, or Peach becomes quite murky.
With ten wins or more in three of the last four seasons, UCF has built a consistent program. Until last year though, that success went under the radar.
Which is why 2014 is pivotal to gain respect and alert the country that the Bortles-led effort was no fluke. Another national TV appearance over the New Year's holiday would cement a reputation of excellence.
Winning the American is ultimately essential to achieving that end result, but UCF has to take their first step towards sustained relevance this weekend.