Can UCF win AAC in final year before move to the Big 12?

UCF didn’t win a conference championship in Gus Malzahn’s first season as coach, but he had no problem with the Knights declaring themselves state champions after they beat Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl last December to finish 9-4.

"We probably were the best team last year in the state, to be honest with you," Malzahn, 56, said earlier last month. "It’s probably not saying much."

Bragging about being the best team in Florida isn’t quite what it used to be.

Last season marked the first time in 43 years that there wasn’t a team from the state ranked in the final Associated Press poll. Florida and Miami carried the state flag early in the 2021 season. But the Hurricanes fell out for good after a loss to Michigan State dropped them to 1-2, and the Gators dropped out by the second week of October after a loss at LSU.

Florida State, meanwhile, the last in-state team to win the national title game (2013), hasn’t been ranked in the AP poll since the Seminoles were 19th in the 2018 preseason poll.

UCF and Florida are the only two in-state programs to finish in the AP top 10 since 2017.

When UCF cruised to the American Athletic Conference title and a 13-0 season after a Peach Bowl victory over Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers in 2017, most of the college football world rolled their eyes when the Knights declared themselves national champions after the Colley Matrix computer-generated system tabbed them the No. 1 team in the country.

With the Knights set to join a Power 5 conference next season, Florida, Florida State and Miami can’t ignore UCF as a serious threat anymore. While College Football Playoff regulars Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State take most of the Sunshine State’s top recruits these days, the Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes have found themselves recruiting against UCF for the top remaining in-state players in recent years. Going to the Big 12 only helps the Knights raise their stature.

"We’re recruiting differently now that we’re going to the Big 12," Malzahn said. "It opened the doors for us with some guys that wouldn’t bend before we made that move."

The Knights haven’t overtaken the state’s Big 3 yet in the recruiting standings. Still, progress is being made. UCF signed four top-500 recruits in the 2022 cycle. In the four years prior, the Knights signed three combined. Click here to learn more about NCAAF and UCF football.

UCF’s 2022 recruiting class, ranked 52nd in the 247Sports Composite, was its best despite including only 15 high school seniors to score points in the team standings.

The group Malzahn has added to UCF’s roster since the end of the season includes 10 transfers from Power 5 programs. The 247Sports Composite transfer portal standings had Florida State and Miami ranked 11th and 12th. But UCF wasn’t far behind. The Knights finished 16th.

The momentum has carried over a little at the start of the 2023 cycle with a handful of notable in-state official visitors in June, which included top-100-ranked defensive lineman John Walker (Kissimmee, Fla.) and three other top-500 recruits.

"Things are going very well," Malzahn said. "A lot of excitement heading into Year 2. Year 1 was more about making sure we knew our personnel, built around our strengths. It was good to go through the league, get an understanding of what you’re dealing with, then recruit to our needs.

"But our goals are a lot bigger than (being state champions). Our goal is to win a national championship here. I really believe we can do it. This place is a gold mine. It’s a great school. Orlando, it’s unbelievable to live here. Everything is set up for great success. It’s a very exciting time right now."

Malzahn wants to create "a State of Orlando" recruiting fence in Central Florida but is not ashamed to say he’s also going to use the transfer portal to build his UCF teams. As far as name, image and likeness is concerned, UCF is "embracing it," Malzahn said.

Instead of wearing traditional numbers on the back of their jerseys for the spring game in April, UCF players wore QR codes so businesses and individuals interested in signing UCF players to marketing deals could easily find links to their player bios and Twitter and Instagram handles.

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