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Five Thoughts on the UCF Knights Joining the Big 12

It’s almost July, which means the UCF Knights are close to being official members of the Big 12 Conference after accepting the invitation nearly two years ago.

UCF has spent the majority of the past two decades in Conference USA and the American before officially receiving an invitation to join the Big 12 in September of 2021.

Here are five things to know about the Knights as their tenure in the Big 12 begins.

 

The History

UCF, originally known as Florida Technological University (1966-1978), was originally established in 1963, but became known as the University of Central Florida in 1978. The UCF athletic department was founded in 1975, and was an original member of the Sunshine State Conference. In 1984, the school officially made the move to the Division-I level, joining the American South Conference, which merged with the Sun Belt in 1991.

In 1992, the Knights joined the Trans America Athletic Conference (TAAC) in all sports but football, which was independent until it joined the MAC in 2001. Then, in 2005, the Knights joined C-USA and remained there until they made the jump to the American in 2013.

Despite having the second-largest on-campus enrollment (68,442) in the nation, UCF has never been in a major conference before its move to the Big 12.

 

The Sports

Entering the 2023-24 season UCF has 16 varsity sports, with six sports for men, and 10 for women. Football has been, by far and away, the most popular and successful sport for UCF since the turn of the century. Over the last two decades, UCF has been a consistent winner (outside of an 0-12 campaign in 2015) . Since 2005, the Knights have been to 13 bowl games, including three New Year’s Six Bowls, where they’ve gone 2-1. UCF has won double-digit games in seven of the last fifteen seasons and even claims the 2017 national championship (Colley Matrix) after going 13-0 under Scott Frost.

Despite being the Knights’ youngest program (est. 2002), UCF Softball has been one of the most successful teams at UCF over the last decade and a half. Since 2008, the Knights have made the NCAA Tournament nine times, and have won six conference championships, and won the AAC Conference Tournament in both 2022 and 2023. In 2022, the Knights advanced to the Super Regionals for the first time in program history before falling to eventual national champion, Oklahoma.

The Knights’ men’s and women’s basketball programs have had runs of success over the years, with women’s basketball winning the AAC as recently as 2022. Under Torchy Clark in the late 70s and early 80s, UCF was a powerhouse, making three trips to the Sweet Sixteen and one trip to the Final Four (1977-78) from 1976-1981.

 

The Rivalries

Known as the War on I-4, UCF’s main rivalry is with the South Florida Bulls, despite the two only meeting on the football field a total of 14 times (UCF leads 8-6). UCF has won each of the past six meetings, including a 46-39 barnburner in 2022. The schools meet in plenty of other sports as well, donning the rivalry’s moniker, with baseball, basketball, and soccer providing back-and-forth momentum between the two over the history of matchups.

Other recognized rivals of the Knights include East Carolina, Memphis, and Houston, as well as Cincinnati, which has been extremely competitive over the last eight years, with a 4-4 all-time series over that span.

The Coaches

Gus Malzahn might be a familiar name to those that follow college football, as the former Auburn head coach took over at UCF in 2021. In his time at UCF, Malzahn has an 18-9 record, and a 1-1 record in bowl games. Last season, Malzahn led UCF to an 8-5 mark, including a 38-31 win over Tulane, who finished ranked No. 9 on the year.

UCF softball coach Cindy Ball-Malone has led the Knights to back-to-back conference tournament championships and has her program on the rise. After taking over in 2019, Ball-Malone has led UCF to three straight 40+ win seasons for the first time in program history.

Johnny Dawkins has served as the men’s basketball coach since 2016, and led the Knights to their first-ever at-large bid in the NCAA tournament in 2018-19, also securing their first-ever tournament win that year. In his time at UCF, Dawkins has a 131-87 record.

Sytia Messer took over as the UCF women’s basketball coach in April of 2022, leading the Knights to a 14-15 record in the AAC in Year 1. Messer was previously the associate head coach at LSU (2021-22) and an assistant at Baylor (2014-21) before that, 14 years over several other programs prior to her time in Waco.

Rich Wallace was hired as the new baseball coach at UCF on June 14, 2023. Af former UCF player and most recently an assistant coach for Notre Dame, Wallace will be tasked with leading the Knights into the Big 12 and elevating a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2017.

The Future

Adding the title of a “Power Five” program to UCF could be a major boost for the Knights as they enter new territory in 2023. While some of their programs might take a minute to get up to speed (basketball, baseball), their football and softball programs are ready to compete in the Big 12 from Day 1.

Board of Trustees Chair Alex Martins is a former longtime senior-level manager and executive with the Orlando Magic, and was listed among Orlando Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful People in 2021. With Martins working alongside UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir, the Knights have a wonderful assortment of resources to help them be successful as a member of the Big 12.

Located in the fertile recruiting grounds of Florida, UCF should have a chance to ascend near the top of the Big 12 after its transition is complete, and should be a contender year-over-year in football and softball.

Giving the Big 12 an inroads to Florida, there could be an impact on other Big 12 rosters as well, seeing more Florida kids head to Big 12 schools as a result.

Overall, the addition of UCF to the Big 12 is an easy sell for any fan of college athletics, most notably football. Welcome to the Big 12, Knights. We’re glad you’re here.

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