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2 Sep 2023

R.J. Harvey UCF running back

ORLANDO, FL UCF running back RJ Harvey breaks free as he rushes for a touchdown during against Kent ... [+] State on Thursday, August 31, 2023 at FBC Mortgage Stadium. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Banners of each Big 12 member hung from the lampposts on East Plaza Drive, a street lined with shops and eateries that becomes a pedestrian walkway on gamedays.

There were the familiar colors and logos of Cincinnati and Houston as well as those of Oklahoma, Texas (both for one more year), Baylor, Kansas State and others.

Mother Nature, who once again unleashed her wrath on the Sunshine State, kept the foot traffic to a minimum early late afternoon Thursday thanks to a thunderstorm about two hours before kickoff and a day after Orlando received a couple of inches of rain courtesy the outer bands of Hurricane Idalia.

With kudos in order to the students who came out in full force, it is a time when not much can put a damper on UCF. After all, the evening was a landmark on the football program’s timeline as it kicked off a new era as a member of the Big 12.

The opponent was a Kent State team rebuilding under first-year coach Kenni Burns, who assembled a squad that, thanks to graduation and transfers, was virtually unrecognizable from last year’s. The Knights, who have come a long way since playing the Golden Flashes as a MAC member in the early 2000s, have been building for a demanding Big 12 schedule by getting deeper on both sides of scrimmage.

A 56-6 win over Kent State, which was paid $900,000 for it troubles, saw the Knights pile up 723 yards. It was a great way to begin the new season, the new era. While the resounding victory was against an opponent that will likely spend much of this season attempting to find its footing, such a performance out of the chute can only help.

“We beat a team that I think we were more talented (than), but we played well and we beat them handily,” said coach Guz Malzahn, in his third season at UCF. “We'll see how it goes as the year goes on. I do think we have a talented team, but we'll have to keep improving. Once we play in the Big 12, and play in those games, we'll kind of see where we stand.”

Malzahn does have a talented team and there is certainly nothing wrong with elevating the confidence level before the conference schedule commences with a trip to Kansas State on September 23. Not that anybody in black and gold is overlooking a Week 2 matchup at Boise State, a program that has enjoyed tremendous success and, like UCF, knows how it feels to be at or near the top of the Group of Five pyramid.

“I feel like it is really important especially going into a new conference,” senior defensive end Josh Celiscar said earlier in the week when asked about the importance of a solid start. “A lot of people don’t expect us to do much, so we just want to go out there in our (season) debut and (show everybody) that we are here to stay, we are here to play and we are here to contend for a Big 12 championship.”

UCF showed a lot Thursday evening. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, in his second season leading the offense on Knights Victory Way, totaled 371 yards and four touchdowns before yielding to backup Timmy McClain, who handled the final two series.

Plumlee also turned the ball over three times, including a fumble and interception in the space of three possessions. While the Golden Flashes did not capitalize on either of the miscues, handing the ball to the likes of Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma on three occasions would not be advisable.

“We did some good, did some bad,” said Plumlee, a two-sport (baseball) transfer from Ole Miss. “The turnovers stick out in my mind and we have to get those fixed.”

Not that the Knights are going to freeze at the sight any misfortune. While a much lesser American Athletic Conference opponent will not conveniently appear on the schedule to give Malzahn’s team an opportunity to clean things up, the aforementioned depth and experience the coach and his staff spent much time building while preparing for Big 12 residency should soften performance- and injury-related blows that are sure to come.

“We have more quality depth than we have had at any time I have been here,” said the 57-year-old coach, in his 11th year overall as a sideline boss with stints at Auburn (2013-20) and Arkansas State (2012). “On both lines of scrimmage, we have depth and quality depth.”

It is an exciting time for a program that for much of the past decade has provided its fan base with plenty to cheer about. The timeline will be fitted with another marker September 30 when Baylor visits Orlando in the first home Big 12 matchup. How often the house bounces that day will likely depend much on taking care of the pigskin and the “quality” of the aforementioned depth. Pretty much the whole season ahead for the Knights in their new conference.