It's hard to spend much time around UCF without seeing reminders of the football program's peak — the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. A sign commemorating that 52-42 win over Baylor even sits on the scoreboard at Bright House Stadium. • To see how far the Knights have fallen in the 22 months since then, pan across last week's mostly empty stands to the other end zone. Seven UCF fans hid their faces with brown paper bags with messages like "Knight-mare season" and "0-10." • Any updated headgear will have to read "0-11" now, after last week's 37-point loss to East Carolina. That collapse led UCF to drop to No. 164 nationally in USA Today's Sagarin ratings and land below 44 Division I-AA programs like Weber State and Cal Poly. • "It's a nightmare," UCF senior H-back Cedric Thompson said, "that every day I wish I would wake up from."
So what happened? How did a program with back-to-back American Athletic Conference championships tumble so far that it must beat rival USF on Thursday to avoid a winless season?
Some of the explanations are obvious:
• Speculation over coach George O'Leary's future weighed on the program, eventually leading to his early retirement after an 0-8 start.
• The Knights lost their top four receivers to graduation or the NFL, then dismissed American Athletic Conference all-league running back Will Stanback after three games. Those departures doomed an offense that has 50 fewer total yards than the second-worst team in the country and ranks in the bottom four in scoring and turnovers lost. Clear communication breakdowns last week led to two hopeless incompletions in UCF's first 20 offensive snaps.
• Starting quarterback Justin Holman missed three games with a hand injury and hasn't been the same. Before the injury, he completed more than 55 percent of his passes nine times in 14 games, dating to last season. He hasn't hit that mark in any of his six starts since his return.
• Other injuries have piled up. Receiver Jordan Akins scored both touchdowns in the season opener but is out for the year with a knee injury. According to UCF, the Knights have lost 80 games from starters or projected starters because of health issues. The result: No team in the country has used more first-time starters than UCF (33).
"You're a young team," interim coach Danny Barrett said. "You don't have anything positive going, so it's hard to stay motivated."
NCAA sanctions from August 2012 have also started to show up on the field. The NCAA cut five initial scholarships and five total scholarships over three years. Those absences help explain why UCF has used 14 current or former walk-ons.
The five players from that first affected class would be juniors or redshirt sophomores, adding pivotal depth to a roster with only nine seniors — the third-fewest in the country.
"What's disappointing is that we don't have that kind of leadership like we used to have to help these young guys fight through things, fight through adversity," Barrett said. "Our captains are doing all they can to try to keep the guys motivated, keep their heads into the game. There's just not enough of those other guys in that locker room right now that's pulling their weight and doing their job."
That leadership void has made small setbacks snowball into major problems.
UCF averaged 5.4 yards per play and scored 14 points in the first half of the season opener against Florida International. After FIU started the third quarter with a touchdown to make it a one-score game, the Knights averaged 4 yards per play and didn't score again.
UCF had outgained No. 21 Houston 231-49 when it held a 10-7 lead last month. After the Cougars regained the lead late in the first half, UCF gained only 49 yards and threw three interceptions on its final eight scoreless drives. The 59-10 blowout was the worst home loss in school history.
Last week against East Carolina, the Knights appeared to tie the score at 14 before a holding penalty wiped out its 45-yard touchdown pass. UCF fired three incompletions to end the threat and crossed midfield only twice the rest of the game.
"It's been the story of the whole season," defensive lineman Thomas Niles said. "Once you get cut, you can't stop the bleeding."
And there's only one game left to try to find a bandage.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.