During the 2017 and 2018 college football seasons, UCF had a 25-game run of undefeated play that spanned two different head coaches and two quarterbacks before coming to an end with a loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.
An undefeated season is rare, let alone nearly a two-season run without a loss, but which school could be the next to potentially complete a UCF-like run?
By that we mean a school from outside the Power Five that could take an undefeated record deep into the season and potentially even enter the fringes of the College Football Playoff conversation in the near future.
Here are some of the candidates.
The Cougars are only four seasons removed from a 13-1 campaign that included non-conference wins over Louisville and Vanderbilt, four victories over ranked opponents, an AAC Championship and a Peach Bowl win over a top-10 Florida State team.
Houston had another 13-1 season four years prior in 2011, so recent history tells us it’s definitely possible for the Cougars to win and win big. Current Texas coach Tom Herman led Houston to peaks of No. 8 and No. 6 in the AP Top 25 Poll in 2015 and 2016, respectively, which is a similar neighborhood that UCF has lived in the last two seasons.
After eight years at West Virginia, new Houston coach Dana Holgorsen decided to return to Houston, where he was the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2008 and 2009 under Kevin Sumlin. He clearly felt a connection and saw an opportunity at the university and its football program for him to be willing to leave a Big 12 job.
Given Holgorsen’s offensive track record at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, it’s reasonable to believe that the Cougars will have an explosive passing attack in the near future, and Texas is one of the most talent-rich states in the country, giving Houston a geographical recruiting advantage in the AAC.
Future non-conference games, like those at Oklahoma and home against Washington State next season, could prove to be a hindrance in Houston’s national climb if the Cougars lose, but they could also allow them to vault up the rankings if they win. From 2020 to 2027, Houston has currently scheduled road games against Washington State, BYU, Vanderbilt, Texas Tech, Kansas, Boise State, Colorado and Utah, so the Cougars have scheduled fairly aggressively.
UCF’s non-conference resume the last two seasons has contributed to some of the doubt surrounding the Knights, but Houston has scheduled in a way that could potentially prevent those same concerns if it were to take an undefeated record late into the season.
Jeff Tedford has revitalized the Fresno State football program, leading a nine-win turnaround in 2017 as the Bulldogs went 10-4 one season after they went 1-11. They took another step forward in 2018 as they went 12-2, winning the Mountain West Championship and the Las Vegas Bowl.
Fresno State’s only losses last season were on the road by seven points against Minnesota and Boise State, so the Bulldogs weren’t far from entering UCF territory as a Group of Five school with a gaudy record and success against Power Five competition.
If Tedford, who spent 11 years as Cal’s coach and led the Bears into the top 10 of the AP poll in five seasons, stays at Fresno State for several more years, then the Bulldogs are a strong candidate to be the next “UCF.”
They ranked seventh in defensive efficiency in 2018 and 30th offensively, according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings.
The amazing part is that Fresno State isn’t even recruiting at an elite level, even compared to fellow Mountain West schools. Its 2017, 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes have ranked fourth or fifth in the Mountain West, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, so an uptick in recruiting could lead to even better results.
Fresno State will have to replace quarterback Marcus McMaryion, his favorite target KeeSean Johnson and All-Mountain West offensive linemen Christian Cronk and Micah St. Andrew, but the Bulldogs are coming off of the winningest two-year run in program history so there’s reason for optimism despite personnel losses.
Similar to Houston, Fresno State’s non-conference scheduling could prove to be a catalyst in the Bulldogs’ continued rise or it could just add more losses. They open next season at USC, then host Minnesota the following week. In 2020, they play at Colorado and Texas A&M in September. The following season they’ll travel to Oregon and UCLA.
The Black Knights finished the 2018 season ranked No. 19 in the AP Top 25 Poll after going 11-2. It marks the first time Army has been ranked since 1996 and it’s the most wins in program history. On top of that, three of the school’s six bowl wins have come in the last three seasons under coach Jeff Monken.
In the last four seasons, Army has improved from 2-10 to 8-5 to 10-3 to 11-2. The only way for that trend to continue is for Army to go undefeated in 2019 or to only lose one game, which would certainly put Army in a UCF-type conversation nationally.
Army’s option offense and status as an independent makes the Black Knights unique in two different regards compared to the typical college football program, but their ability to take Oklahoma to overtime on the road last season and dominate Houston 70-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl shows that an option attack can present a difficult challenge to even the best teams in the country.
Entering his sixth season at Army, Monken has his system in place and his team has hit its stride in the last two seasons, which suggests a level of structure and stability that can allow Army to continue to string together 10-plus win seasons moving forward.
The Black Knights play at Michigan in Week 2 in their biggest game next season.
Who’s to say that UCF can’t continue its extremely high level of play?
Maybe the answer is in the question itself and UCF’s two-year run turns into a four or five-year period of tremendous success.
An undefeated regular season is a lofty – and probably unrealistic – bar to set for almost any program, but the Knights are operating at the highest level of any team in the AAC and they have a strong local recruiting base in Florida that has led to UCF having a top-two recruiting class in the conference three seasons in a row.
Heisman Trophy contender McKenzie Milton suffered a brutal leg injury late last season, which could put a damper on UCF’s trajectory going forward. So could a 2019 non-conference schedule that features a home game with Stanford and a road game at Pitt. The Knights will face ACC foes North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Louisville in future seasons.