TAMPA, Fla. – UCF is the only one of four first-year Big 12 programs to make it to bowl season. BYU (5-7), Cincinnati (4-8) and Houston (4-8) remained home for the holidays.
There is unfinished business, though, as the Knights (6-6) have a chance to end up with a winning record. That’s what would happen should they emerge victorious against Georgia Tech (6-6) in Friday evening’s (Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
“To get these seniors that have meant so much for our program, send them out on a positive note and get momentum for the offseason,” said coach Gus Malzahn, when asked about the importance of finishing on the sunny side of .500.
It should help that UCF is playing in a familiar venue two hours from its Orlando campus. The Knights have won five straight at Raymond James Stadium dating to 2018. They defeated USF in each of the last three meetings off Dale Mabry as well as a pair of Gasparilla Bowls, 2019 against Marshall and a thriller over Florida in 2021 to close Malzahn’s first season running the program.
“It’s two hours away,” said Malzahn. “It’s great for our crowd and we really like playing in this stadium.”
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee is among a handful of Knights closing out a collegiate career. Plumlee, who transferred from Ole Miss following the 2021 season, missed time earlier this season due to a leg injury. He still wears a brace when on the field, but is close to 100 percent.
“It would be big for UCF, big for us to go out on high note,” he said. “There have been ups and downs and we definitely want to end this the right way. Definitely motivated to get a win. I cannot emphasize that enough.”
The Knights ran the table in non-conference play with wins over Kent State, Boise State, and Villanova. They lost their first five Big 12 games, including blowing a 35-7 lead and losing at home against Baylor, 36-35, and falling short (31-29) in a well-played game at Oklahoma, which was quarterbacked by former UCF star Dillon Gabriel.
The Knights chipped away in November and clinched bowl eligibility with a 27-13 win over Houston on Thanksgiving weekend.
“It is a very quality league and you have to have quality depth,” said Malzahn. “You have to win close games and we came up a little short in some of those, but we finished strong by winning three of the last four.”
The Knights seek to close 2023 by making it four of five.
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