UCF on the rise

ORLANDO – Bruce Miller got a phone call from his parents while he was eating lunch. Derrick Hallman started getting text messages in church. Jeff Godfrey saw it on the local news.

Good news does not take long to travel fast these days.

UCF had just earned the first ranking in school history – No. 25 in the AP poll and No. 23 in the coaches’ poll -- and players quickly started learning about it Sunday afternoon.

“I just felt appreciated,” said Miller, a defensive end who needs two more sacks to become the school career leader. “It was exciting. We’ve never seen that before. It was different and I know all the guys enjoyed that.”

UCF has been more of a star-crossed program than a successful one throughout its history. Fans have become accustomed to inconsistency and disappointment, to being told they were just not good enough to join a big-time conference the last time the Big East expanded. The insult was made even worse when the league decided on cross-state rival USF instead.

The joke going into this season was that it was an even-numbered year, and well, UCF just has plain old bad luck on even-numbered years. The Knights have made just three bowl games in their history, losing all three. But they have followed up each bowl appearance with a losing season.

They were embarrassed 45-24 to Rutgers in the St. Petersburg Bowl last season, but players believed their veteran group would break the string of inconsistency that has plagued this program. They set a goal when the season started to host the Conference USA championship game.

With nearly the entire defense returning and most players on offense back, the goal seemed realistic. Now it is on the verge of happening. The Knights (7-2, 5-0) are the only team that is undefeated in league play headed into the final home game of the season Saturday against Southern Miss (6-3, 3-2).

If East Carolina loses to UAB tonight, UCF can clinch the East with a win against the Golden Eagles.

“We completely understand what’s on the line and what we’re playing for this weekend and in the weeks to come,” Miller said. “We’re not playing for a ranking. We’re playing for our goal, which is a conference championship.”

Miller anchors a unit that was one of the best in the league last season and is one of the best again this season, ranking No. 1 in total defense and scoring defense. Much of the focus this season has been on Miller, the Conference USA preseason pick for Defensive Player of the Year, so others have stepped up. That includes Darius Nall, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks. Nall has an inspirational story, having overcome cancer to return to the team last season.

But perhaps the biggest story of the season has been the emergence of Godfrey, a true freshman out of Miami. He chose UCF in part because the Knights allowed him to play quarterback. Many of the other schools that recruited him said he was too small for the position at 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds, and wanted him to play something else.

He started the season behind Rob Calabrese on the depth chart, but saw spot duty. Many thought it was only a matter of time before he took over. Sure enough, he became the starter in Week 3 -- though Calabrese still played some. But Godfrey has been the full-time guy since Calabrese was lost for the season with a knee injury against Marshall in Week 6.

Godfrey has gotten better each week, and is a dual threat – he can run the ball, too. He has thrown for 1,300 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions, and rushed for 499 yards and six touchdowns. Last week in a 40-33 win against Houston, he had 399 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.

“I knew once he got settled in and got his feet beneath him, he was going to be our best player,” said Hallman, second on the team in tackles. “I told him, ‘You’re going to be a prodigy in this program. By the end of this year, you’re going to be the face of this program.’ ”

UCF has a bright future with Godfrey at the helm, but first this program has to start building consistency for more than a few seasons. The ranking is nice. But there is more to be done.

“We’re not done yet,” Godfrey said. “We want to get to our destination, and that’s the conference championship.”