UCF welcomes opportunity against No. 12 Gamecocks
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — There’s a standard response UCF coach George O’Leary gives when he’s asked about the opportunity that comes with playing opponents from college football’s top-rated conferences.
It’s not enough to just play those games, he says. Winning them is what matters.
No. 12 South Carolina’s visit to UCF on Saturday won’t be the first time that the Knights have had a chance to notch a signature victory during O’Leary’s tenure.
But at 3-0 and fresh off one the its biggest wins in school history at Penn State, suddenly the program that’s previously only nibbled at grabbing some national attention could finally do it.
“They understand it’s a big game,” O’Leary said of his team’s mindset this week. “The biggest thing is not who it is — it’s national TV. The kids understand that. They understand it very well. Both teams understand that because you’re sending your resume out. That’s what you’re doing.”
UCF’s fan base didn’t really know what to expect out of this season with the Knights entering their first year as members of the still-evolving American Athletic Conference.
The conference formerly known as the Big East will undergo another makeover this summer, but for one more year its winner will gain a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.
Beat the Gamecocks (2-1) in front of a national television audience, though, and everyone — not just upcoming conference opponents — will have no choice but to pay attention to one of Florida’s programs not named the University Florida, Florida State or Miami.
Knights’ fans clearly recognize that, and responded by pushing the game to sellout status, UCF’s first since hosting Boston College in 2011.
“Well, it should be packed. I think it’s no question home field advantage in college football is a big deal because of the noise,” O’Leary said. “That’s what college football is all about. Eventually that’s the way you’d like to see every weekend” at UCF.
Excitement alone doesn’t guarantee a victory, though. And UCF will be competing against its own history in these games.
The Knights are just 1-24 all-time against ranked teams, with their lone victory coming against Houston in 2009 when both teams were still members of Conference USA.
The Gamecocks are members of the Southeastern Conference, long-considered to be college’s standard-bearing league. UCF holds only a 2-14 mark against SEC foes, though it includes a 2010 Liberty Bowl win over Georgia.
That’s not lost on South Carolina.
“We prepare the same way for everybody,” Gamecocks’ coach Steve Spurrier said. “Twenty, 30, 40 years ago around here, people would say we can’t overlook these guys. We don’t overlook anybody.”
Knights players said they recognize as the challenge goes up, so does the possible reward from winning.
“It would be the biggest win in the program ever,” said senior offensive tackle Chris Martin. “It would be huge for the school, huge for this town, huge for us players. This is the special season that we all hoped for. And if we win that it’s just another step.”
Martin will be one of the members of UCF’s offensive line tasked with slowing down a South Carolina defense led by highly touted defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
UCF played without starting left tackle Torrian Wilson against Penn State, but didn’t surrender a sack. Wilson, who was out with a knee injury, is back and expected to play Saturday.
Martin said he relishes the chance to prove himself opposite a player like Clowney, who could be the top selection in next year’s NFL draft.
“It’s too exciting. This is what you live for. It’s what you play college football for, for games like this,” Martin said. “Me personally, going against the No. 1 NFL prospect. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Knights quarterback Blake Bortles has already garnered attention this season with a total quarterback rating that ranks third in the nation, which is ahead of both Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Florida State’s Jameis Winston at fourth and fifth, respectively.
He said he doesn’t think anybody on the Knights side will need any incentive to play their best, though.
“We don’t really play much into the whole underdog thing,” Bortles said. “We have just as many scholarships as people do at other places. So we’re on scholarship just like they are. We think we match up well with anybody and can play with anybody.”
AP sports writer Peter Iacobelli contributed to this report
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