Welcome to the Big 12
The Big 12 announced four additions in September 2021, but none of the newcomers traversed a more unlikely pathway to this point than the UCF Knights. Founded as Florida Technical College in 1963, UCF is the youngest Big 12 program with 36 years of separation from the second-youngest in Houston. The Knights are now on their fourth FBS conference after navigating through every single level of college football — Division III, Division II, FCS, and FBS.
“For me personally, I’m very excited,” Malzahn said. “This is a great conference, one of the best football conferences in college football, and probably the deepest from top to bottom. So I’m very excited about that. As far as challenging, the great thing is we’ve had over a year, almost a year and a half to get prepared for this moment, talking about having quality depth when you move up conferences and leagues.”
While the Big 12 is what UCF has desired from a competition standpoint, relocating leagues is not exactly ideal from a geographic perspective. The Knights will travel more than double the mileage in conference play this year than they did in their 2022 AAC slate. They lose their annual in-state rivalry game with South Florida, and there is no natural geographic rival to replace the Bulls — as all 13 Big 12 teams exceed 12 hours in driving distance from Orlando. The Knights leave the Sunshine State for five Big 12 clashes this fall, with the closest road trip being approximately 900 miles away in Cincinnati.
“As far as the prep before the game, it’s not going to be that big of a deal,” Malzahn said on the amplified travel. “The big challenge will be if you play a night game and you get back and the sun is coming up, getting prepared for the next week. But that’s something we’ll adjust to. It’s like anything else, you adjust to it, and of course next year we’ll have five home games, so that’ll be a game changer for us, too.”
One advantage UCF receives from this geographic isolation in the Big 12 is status as the conference’s flagship Florida school. The Big 12 transition has already elevated the caliber of the Knights’ recruiting classes, as demonstrated by their top 50 class for the 2023 cycle. Since taking the job in 2021, Malzahn has held firm belief in this program, citing its prime location in the entertainment hotbed of Orlando, as well as its backing from a young and massive alumni base.
“It’s a huge advantage. Now that we’re in the Power Five recruiting, we recruit against the three larger schools in the state and it’s been a game changer as far as that,” Malzahn said. “I really think the fan bases are going to really enjoy Orlando. There’s not a better place in the country to live, vacation. There’s no NFL team. The best brands in the world are there. We’ve got a great environment as far as our Bounce House and everything that goes with it.”
UCF’s brand surged throughout the 2010s, starting with the 2013 AAC championship and Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor. Then in 2017 and 2018, the University was at the forefront of the college football world when rattling off 25 consecutive victories, two conference titles, and a monumental victory over Auburn in the Fiesta Bowl to cap an undefeated season. Despite boasting undefeated records heading into the College Football Playoff in 2017 and 2018, UCF was not invited to the event either time. Now with the Big 12 logo on their chests, the Knights have fewer obstacles when it comes to earning respect for their accomplishments.
“We’re now in the position that we want to be in,” defensive end Josh Celiscar said. “We get that national, big level that we want to be at.”
To quantify the excitement for Big 12 initiation, look no further than ticket sales. UCF sold out its Big 12 opener against Baylor and its homecoming game against West Virginia before the month of July even commenced. With a new collection of teams paying a visit, FBC Mortgage Stadium — colloquially known as “the Bounce House” — is poised to become a sight to see this September.
“Our atmosphere can compete with any atmosphere in the nation,” Celiscar said. “Our fans are great and I just believe we’re going to have a great year.”
Expectations for year one in a new home
UCF checked in at 8th of 14 teams in the Big 12 Media Preseason Poll. The Knights weren’t accustomed to ranking below the 50th percentile in the AAC, having qualified for seven consecutive bowl games in their former conference. Still, UCF was granted the most respect of the four newcomers with a ranking exceeding BYU (11th), Houston (12th), and Cincinnati (14th) in the preseason poll.
“I think there’s a reason there are preseason polls and postseason rankings,” quarterback John Rhys Plumlee said. “I think we’re more into the postseason rankings than the preseason, but as the new guy on the block, that’s part of what you get. As the new guy on the block, they can’t put you at the top of it, so we’re excited to see how it all plays out and settles in the end.”
The initial Big 12 induction transpired in September 2021 — one game into Malzahn’s tenure in Orlando — allowing UCF nearly two full years to prepare for this moment. Having ample SEC experience, Malzahn understood which aspects the Knights had to upgrade to Big 12 caliber in order to thrive in their new league. His main emphasis was building depth in the trenches.
“We’ve had about a year and a half to prepare our roster for the Big 12,” Malzahn said. “You have to have quality depth on the offensive line and defensive line to compete once you move up. That was strategic from our standpoint and we’ve got seven to eight to possibly nine guys who can start (on the offensive line), and on the defensive line, we’ve got a solid two-deep too.”
To fortify the offensive line into a Big 12 caliber position group, Malzahn consulted the transfer portal on numerous occasions this offseason. UCF landed First Team All-MAC offensive tackle Marcellus Marshall from Kent State, Second Team All-Mountain West center Bula Schmidt from Fresno State, and guard Amari Kight from Alabama to gain an advantage over other defensive lines in the league.
“Marcellus has been great ever since coming in. He’s been the one I’ve been most surprised by because I didn’t know who he was, but he’s gonna be a great player in this league,” Celiscar said. “Amari Kight has developed a little bit and done great things, but he’s still getting to that point. Those guys right there, they might have a great year.”
Running it back with Plumlee
One luxury the Knights enjoy that cannot be said for the other Big 12 newcomers is the return of their starting quarterback. Dual-threat weapon John Rhys Plumlee is back for his second season with the program after firing for 2,586 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, complemented with a team-high 862 rushing yards. Adjusting to a new conference is one challenge, but Malzahn is looking forward to grow with his quarterback rather than develop a new one to launch Big 12 play.
“That’s really a difference maker I think,” Malzahn said of Plumlee’s return. “If you have your quarterback back, no matter what conference you’re in, that’s big, especially with a guy with experience like we have. He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal player.”
Plumlee operates under a new offensive coordinator this season due to Chip Lindsey’s offseason departure for North Carolina. Filling the void is Darin Hinshaw, who spent the past season at UAB conducting the offense. Hinshaw’s unit was renowned for its prowess on the ground, as well as its impressive degree of verticality in the passing game. This verticality was evident as UAB’s three leading receivers all averaged at least 16 yards per reception last year, including Trea Shropshire who attained 923 yards on an average of 22.5 per catch.
“I brought in Darin to really open up our offense, push the ball vertically down the field,” Malzahn said. “We were a top 20 offense overall in college football, but our yards per completion weren’t really high — like 88th in the country. And then to develop our quarterback, specifically John Rhys Plumlee, and he has done an unbelievable job. John Rhys is like night and day to where he was at this time last year.”
Malzahn is renowned for his up-tempo, no-huddle offenses which he originally made his signature at the high school level. He continues to implement these concepts at UCF, but his offense will have to operate under different circumstances this year. To speed up games, the NCAA eliminated clock stoppages following first downs this offseason, save for the final two minutes of each half. The rule change doesn’t faze one of the godfathers of the hurry-up offense, and the Knights will continue to utilize tempo as one of their trademarks.
“We’re going to continue to put the hammer down,” Malzahn said. “But I think this change is not going to be that drastic. It may limit a few plays a game, but I really don’t think as of right now it’s going to be that drastic, and we’re planning on putting the hammer down and playing as fast as we can.”
From Williams to Williams
Explosive offensives was an integral part of UCF’s branding during the Scott Frost and Josh Heupel eras. The Knights ranked top 10 in scoring offense and top five in yards per game every season from 2017-20. But in 2022, the team’s success was highly contingent on stellar defensive play. UCF didn’t allow a single opponent to exceed 20 points through its first six games, a stretch which allowed the Knights to qualify for the AAC Championship Game. Although the unit couldn’t sustain that dominant pace the entire season, reverting to that level of defensive prowess is necessary to ensure Big 12 success.
“To revert back to that point, it’s just guys doing their jobs,” Celiscar said. “The standard is the standard and that’s not changing. What I take from that is holding your brother accountable for his actions because if he does his job and I do my job, we can succeed.”
However, the architect of that unit, Travis Williams, left town for the Arkansas defensive coordinator gig in December. Williams’ vacancy will be filled by Addison Williams, an internal promotion who specialized in coaching the UCF cornerbacks last season.
“Addison was with me at my previous job when we played really good football,” Malzahn said. “He is one of those young, innovative guys. Our focus has been putting pressure on the quarterback, and of course this league is one of the best offensive leagues, if not the best offensive league. You will see some changes. You will see some unique pressures. But the bottom line, to have a chance to be a great defense, you’ve got to be able to put pressure on the quarterback rushing four, and we really feel like our roster, we’ve done a good job bringing in some and then developing, and then recruiting.”
The facet of Addison Williams’ defense expected to hold the most firepower in the inaugural Big 12 season is the defensive line. The Knights return two reigning First Team All-AAC selections in defensive end Tre’Mon Morris-Brash and defensive tackle Ricky Barber (22.0 combined TFLs in 2022) which should help the unit thrive against Big 12 offensive lines.
“Ricky, him knowing that we’re going to a bigger conference, he’s ready to show everybody that he’s the best defensive tackle in the country,” Celiscar said. “Having what we have on the d-line, it just gives us an edge as far as brotherhood. Us being able to rotate guys and us having a good group of d-linemen is good for our conference, good for our defense, and good for the rest of the team as well.”