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UCF won more than a football game by beating the Gators

TAMPA — The game made no sense, except perhaps to those who believe moments and memories are the world’s greatest currency.

And so, on a chilly night in the hours leading up to Christmas Eve, a football team that’s been chasing relevance for as long as they’ve been playing games won one of those special moments.

As the clock ticks down, half the stadium is empty and the other half is just starting to party, a football program has earned him one of those memories.

It won’t change conference standings, it won’t affect national rankings, and it may not drastically alter the trajectory of college football in this state, but it will live on forever – for good and bad. – in the hearts of those who were there at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night.

Yes, the University of Central Florida beat Florida 29-17 in the Gasparilla Bowl, and little brothers everywhere instinctively understood the concept of comeuppance, even if they weren’t sure what the word meant.

It was Florida State that finally stood up to the Gators in the 1970s. It was Miami that overtook FSU and Florida in the 1980s. This is an opportunity for the Knights to change perceptions in one of the richest football states in the country for prep talent.

“What I really think is going to happen now is that rookies won’t just be looking for the logo,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said.

It’s vindication for Malzahn, who hasn’t been shy about wanting to tangle with Florida since he was hired by UCF earlier this year. He pushed for a regular-season series, even acquiescing to Florida’s demand that the Knights come to Gainesville twice in exchange for a game in Orlando.

Malzahn also endorsed a series of billboards around Florida, monitoring the state’s most established programs. A billboard on Interstate 75 in Gainesville suggested drivers were only 200 miles from the future of college football in Florida.

And when the Knights converted a late fourth down to seal the win, Malzahn’s version of the future had arrived. He took off his helmet, shook hands with several assistant coaches, then turned to face the crowd behind the UCF bench, arms spread as wide as his smile.

Moments later, as the Knights ran out of time, he was given a Gatorade bath by a few players. He got another once the game was over.

“Some wins are worth two,” he said, when asked about the double dose. “It was worth two.”

No, it wasn’t a pretty football game. The Gators committed way too many penalties and the two quarterbacks combined for a ton of ghastly shots.

And, no, it wasn’t an important football game. There will be no seismic shift in standings, and a Gasparilla Bowl title is the college football equivalent of an attendance trophy.

But some games are important simply because of emotional investment. Make no mistake, the Gators wanted to win this game. Respect and pride are two of the most overused and overrated words in locker rooms around the world, but this game meant something to UF players.

That’s why the stands were packed, and that’s why ESPN called it one of the most anticipated games of the playoffs. That’s why there were several skirmishes on the pitch after the game was over, and that’s why interim head coach Greg Knox’s voice cracked when he spoke about the seniors of the UF thereafter.

So what does this really mean?

Will this change recruiting in the state, as Malzahn suggested? Will that make it harder for new Florida coach Billy Napier? Will it be another nail in the coffin for USF, which had to watch UCF celebrate on the Bulls’ home court on national television while putting even more distance between the two programs?

Yes, yes and yes.

Of course, these are not black and white questions and answers. There’s a lot of gray involved. Malzahn can use this to his advantage, but he has to close the deal with the rookies. And Napier was going to have their work cut out for them regardless of Thursday night’s result.

“We’re about to recruit our butts,” Malzahn said. “I’ll tell you that.”

The final impact of the Gasparilla Bowl is likely still years away. All we know for certain is that it was a special moment. A special memory. A special night.

Jean Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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