On July 1, 2023, the Big 12 officially initiated four members. The league brought in the BYU Cougars from independent status and also opened its arms to three of the most successful AAC programs over the past decade — the Cincinnati Bearcats, Houston Cougars, and UCF Knights.
In most years, bowl eligibility is a staple for those programs. BYU participated in a bowl game in 17 of the last 18 years. Cincinnati participated in a bowl game in 14 of the last 17 years. Houston participated in a bowl game in 15 of the last 18 years. UCF participated in a bowl game in 12 of the last 14 years.
But transitioning to the Big 12 was clearly a challenge for all four successful programs. None of the four exceeded .500 in the regular season, but one claimed bowl eligibility at the buzzer in Week 13. UCF hosted Houston in a battle of former AAC teams on senior day at the Bounce House in Orlando. The Knights defended their home and claimed a 27-13 victory over the Cougars, securing bowl eligibility for the eighth-consecutive season.
“We had some really, really tough moments, probably as many tough moments as I’ve had in my career in one season, but our guys, give them credit,” UCF head coach Gus Malzahn said. “They just hung in there and they kept battling. First year in the conference and we’re one of the new kids on the block. Obviously in the big picture, we’re not satisfied how things turned out, but obviously we’re happy the first year we went to a bowl.”
In order to keep the postseason streak alive, UCF needed three wins in its final four outings after a disastrous 0-5 start in Big 12 play. The Knights improved as the season progressed, as did the health of starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee who shined on senior day by completing 23-of-27 passing attempts for 253 yards, rushing for 58 yards, and accounting for two touchdowns in the victory.
“I’m extremely thankful for the time spent in the Bounce House,” Plumlee said. “I spent some of the best moments of my life in that stadium. To play the last one there, it’s bittersweet a little bit, but I’m happy with the way we performed today.”
Another senior Knight possibly enjoying a farewell tour in Orlando was running back RJ Harvey entered Saturday as one of the FBS’s top 15 rushers and sustained his place among the nation’s elite with 136 yards on 21 attempts — his sixth time eclipsing the century mark in a 7-game span. Harvey broke the game open in the third quarter when punching in a pair of rushing touchdowns, totaling 10 in his last four outings.
“Credit to the offensive line, they’ve been working hard each and every week and they get better each and every week,” Harvey said. “They don’t get a lot of praise, so I just thank them for helping me reach that 100-yard mark every game.”
Houston set the tone for the afternoon with just its second opening drive touchdown of the season. Quarterback Donovan Smith completed each of his first five attempts for 70 yards in a strong start, heavily involving Stephon “Boogie” Johnson, who stepped up in place for the injured Matthew Golden. Johnson recorded a 16-yard touchdown on a flip pass to commence the scoring for the game. Houston never trailed in the opening quarter, but once UCF established a 13-10 advantage four minutes into the second frame, the Cougars never wound up in front again, nor reached the end zone again.
Kicking woes plagued the Knights from opening the margin beyond 13-10 at the midway point. One week after missing a critical tying extra point in a 24-23 loss to Texas Tech, UCF repeated the same blunder after its first touchdown. Knights kicker Colton Boomer missed two second quarter field goals — one which was blocked by Houston defensive tackle Jamaree Caldwell. Although Houston’s defense struggled to contain UCF, these special teams woes kept the Cougars alive.
“Kickers are a lot like a golf swing,” Malzahn said. “If you’ve ever played golf for whatever reason, you lose a little bit of that and he’s lost a little bit of that. But that’s our job as coaches and my job to get him ready to go again because he’s an outstanding kicker. He’ll be back better than ever.”
In the second half, Houston’s offense couldn’t keep pace with the up-tempo Knights. The Cougars converted only 1-of-10 third down attempts and generated 74 yards of offense after halftime, unable to sustain the progress from the first quarter.
“Our inability to be able to execute and focus was a problem,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I was happy with how we started. We just had a hard time getting things going in the second half. (UCF) came out and I didn’t know what we were gonna get out of them in the second half and they turned things up. I thought we were about to go out there and turn things up. We didn’t. They did.”
Houston (4-8, 2-7 Big 12) officially concludes its first season of Big 12 membership. The Cougars won’t participate in the postseason for the first time since 2019 after dropping each of their final three games. Without a bowl game, Saturday marked the final collegiate showing for notable seniors including captains Nelson Ceaser, Patrick Paul, Jack Freeman, and Hasaan Hypolite.
“The seniors in the locker room are kind of sad right now,” Holgorsen said. “It’s over for them. I told them I loved them and appreciated everything that they did for us. It hits you when you walk off that field for the last time. Those guys were really emotional in there and we really tried to get a win.”
UCF (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) is not finished with its inaugural Big 12 season yet. Although the middle featured plenty adversity, the Knights started and finished 2023 in impressive fashion to claim their eighth consecutive bowl appearance, while Malzahn registered his 12th bowl appearance in 12 seasons as an FBS head coach. The third-year UCF coach is now focused on the next task — leaving this year with a trophy to secure the Knights’ seventh-straight winning season.
“It would mean a winning season. It would mean momentum going into next year. It’s really a big deal for us,” Malzahn said. “We saw it the other way. We had a pretty good season last year. We went to the conference championship. We had some quarterback injuries and stuff like that. We didn’t win. We went to a bowl and played a really good team, and we didn’t win and it kind of took away a little momentum in the offseason.”