ORLANDO — This season has been a progression of big-stage opportunities for UCF.
First it was an opportunity realized at Penn State as the Knights earned their first victory over a Big Ten team.
Next, a visit from South Carolina brought a ranked SEC opponent to Orlando in a game the Knights dominated for one half but ended with them coming up a field goal short.
It's still early in the conference season, but with UCF and No. 8 Louisville likely the favorites over their remaining American Athletic Conference foes the rest of the year, their matchup tonight (8, ESPN) could go a long way in determining who winds up with the league's BCS berth.
"It always gets us pumped up knowing this is a big opportunity for the school and the program finally getting to a BCS bowl bid being in this conference," Knights linebacker Terrance Plummer said. "The way we get there is winning the conference and Louisville is in our conference. So it's exciting. It's much-needed for the school (and) much-needed for us as a team to measure ourselves against the best."
UCF (4-1, 1-0 American) struggled in its conference opener at Memphis two weeks ago, but it scored two touchdowns over a nine-second stretch to secure a seven-point win.
A bye week afforded the Knights time to regroup and prepare for the Cardinals and Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater.
The Cardinals (6-0, 2-0) are tops in the nation for scoring defense (allowing 7.3 points per game) and ranks second in total defense (229.5 yards per game). They also have the conference's top scoring offense, averaging 41 points per game.
Knights coach George O'Leary praised Bridgewater, saying that while he and UCF quarterback Blake Bortles are the first- and second-ranked passers in the conference, respectively, Bortles is probably "a year behind Teddy as far as quarterbacking."
Bortles is looking for some big stage redemption after throwing two key interceptions against South Carolina.
Bridgewater is "obviously a great player and they're obviously a great team,'' Bortles said. "My job is to execute our offense and to move the ball and score points."
Expectations at Louisville have gone up since coach Charlie Strong's arrival, but they got an added jolt with the Cardinals' domination of Florida in the Sugar Bowl last season.
Strong said he doesn't mind the idea of playing with a weekly target on his team's back.
"I don't think anyone expected us to get to where we were last season compared to this season," he said. "Now that everyone has placed us there, now they expect so much from us. I think the team is doing a very good job of handling it."
UCF running back Storm Johnson said no one needs any extra motivation as the Knights look to improve on their 1-25 mark against ranked opponents.
"Everybody knows that in the locker room. Everybody knows that in the stands," Johnson said. "This is a big game coming up. Everybody's going to be ready, everybody's going to be pumped for this game, and we want to give it the best chance we've got."