'We are the big school' – On seminal night, UCF shows glimpse of future and what Big 12 membership could bring

ORLANDO, Fla. – Boise State and UCF are eternal Thursday Heroes, the Sons of Zabransky and Kin of the Griffin Brothers. They’ve provided endless weeknight entertainment, last-call fodder and showcased time and again they’re capable of sabotaging the highest levels of the sport.

In the past two decades, the long list of bowl games that UCF and Boise have won includes the Fiesta and the Peach. The programs they’ve toppled include Oklahoma, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Georgia (both schools), Baylor, Alabama and Penn State.

They are separated by nearly 2,500 miles but joined by the underdog spirit that gives college football its quintessential adrenaline jolts. And in locales like Boise and Orlando, when those jolts evolve from outlier to expectation, the possibility of elevating their conference status looms.

ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 02:   Head coach Gus Malzahn of the UCF Knights is seen during warm ups against the Boise State Broncos at the Bounce House on September 2, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Gus Malzahn got win No. 1 as head coach at UCF on Thursday night against Boise State. (Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

On the day these two kindred football spirits met for the first time, they also may have begun separating to different sides of the moat that defines college football’s financial caste system. At least for now.

UCF won in coach Gus Malzahn’s debut on the field, 36-31, overcoming a 21-point first-half deficit and a nearly three-hour lightning delay. That paled in comparison to the news that emerged out of the Big 12, which could leave this soggy Thursday as one of the most transformative days in the history of the UCF athletic department.

The meetings of the Big 12 athletic directors earlier this week resulted in the league targeting four schools as likely realignment additions – BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston. Yahoo Sports confirmed a report by The Athletic earlier in the day, and the additions could be made within the next two months although the timing is in flux based on the potential moving target of Texas and Oklahoma’s exit.

A day that began with optimism and a linear path to a bigger platform and more television revenue for UCF ended in a Gatorade shower for Malzahn. And it should commence Champagne popping in the UCF athletics executive suite with one of Malzahn’s trademark BOOM fist pumps.

“This is a program that has a chance to be elite here in the near future,” Malzahn told Yahoo Sports after the game, sometime after his postgame news conference ended at 1:49 a.m. “Whatever that means, that’s great. We’re going to be in the mix of it, I really believe that.”

With its location in a football hotbed, a top 20 TV market that’s now bigger than Miami and 70,000 students enrolled, the roots have always been there for UCF to bloom into a power. The elevated league affiliation helps flip the switch.

“Everything is where you need it to be to be in the top 10,” president Alex Cartwright told Yahoo Sports in his office Thursday. He added: “We want to be a top 10 athletic program.”

The trappings are certainly there. Students clad in black snaked around the Bounce House hours before kickoff, taking part in a few libations before the skies offered their own liquid. They filled the stadium, then re-filled it after a lightening delay and when the delay lasted nearly three hours still ended up with a decent showing. Hard to blame them for not sticking around for a game that ended long after 1 a.m., but the energy still coursed through the 44,000-seat bandbox known as the Bounce House.

While the spirit has been fostered thanks to two decades of solid football, the infrastructure is catching up. A football facility estimated to cost $50 million is in the blueprints phase, the first major landmark of first-year athletic director Terry Mohajir.

Two trophies commemorating the 2017 UCF “National Championship” rest on the shelves above Mohajir’s desk, leftovers from his pot-stirring predecessor, Danny White. And when Mohajir points out his office window, he humblebrags: “You can see the rockets launch from my office.”

Thursday may well be remembered as the time that UCF took off to the next tier. Mohajir didn’t want to comment on the news, and Cartwright shied away from any specific talk about the Big 12. But the optimism was palpable.

Mohajir embraces UCF’s role as a maverick and an upstart. When people ask him about the so-called “bigger schools” in college football, he chuckles out loud and reminds them of the 70,000-student enrollment.

“We have not only one, but we have two Chick-fil-A’s on campus,” he said. “And we have longer lines at our two Chick-fil-A's than some of the Autonomy conference schools have students in their whole student body.

“When people compare us to the big school ... We are the big school.”

With television revenue from the AAC at an average of about only $7 million during this television deal, the possibility of a bigger revenue stream will indeed help.

ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 02:   Alec Holler #82 of the UCF Knights celebrates his touchdown catch against Boise State Broncos at the Bounce House on September 2, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
UCF's Alec Holler celebrates his touchdown catch against Boise State at the Bounce House on Thursday night. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 02:  Students and fans wait after lightning delays the start of the Boise State versus UCF football game at the Bounce House on September 2, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 02: Students and fans wait after lightning delays the start of the Boise State versus UCF football game at the Bounce House on September 2, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

UCF is set to join a Big 12 that has seen the eight remaining teams unified again by mutual desperation and lack of options. That means a path forward could be quickly forged. The strategy of hope for schools to be plucked by other conferences has been replaced by a much more realistic strategy of expansion. (That could lead to more expansion in a few years, a round where Boise State would be a viable candidate.)

The timing isn’t clear, and won’t be until there’s absolute clarity on the departures of Oklahoma and Texas. But the Big 12 is growing, and that news dropped on a day when the nation enjoyed a back-and-forth tussle. There was a 100-yard interception return by Boise, the familiar pre-snap smoke from Malzahn’s offense that helped Isaiah Bowser rush for 172 yards and a Boise team that showed grit in Andy Avalos’ debut as Broncos head coach, all on a night when the humidity doubled as a bowl of clam chowder.

Malzahn was looking for something a bit different to eat after the game. He’s reviving his postgame victory tradition by finding a local Waffle House for a bite.

“Ham and cheese omelet — scattered, smothered, covered and chunked,” he said in a quiet moment before pausing dramatically and creasing a smile across his face. “Probably tonight, I’ll get a waffle, too.”

On a historic day at UCF, it seemed fitting to splurge. One game into his tenure, everything changed for Malzahn and UCF.

“I think it’s just the potential,” he said. “I believed it before I got here. Now that I got here, I believe it ever more. Everything is aligned. Our AD, our president.”

He capped that thought with a simple observation, repeated for emphasis on a day when it became more of a reality: “It’s a real place. It’s a real place.”