How did UCF go from 0-12 to unbeaten? Coaching and chemistry

Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) attempts a pass against Temple during the first quarter in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Philadelphia. UCF defeated Temple 45-19. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) attempts a pass against Temple during the first quarter in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Philadelphia. UCF defeated Temple 45-19. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Published Nov. 20, 2017

ORLANDO — The marvel of Space Mountain dissipated decades ago. Doctor Doom's Fearfall at Universal, while a nifty defiance of gravity, has its ups and downs. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad? Please.

To many locals, Orlando's most dizzying experience — spanning two autumns and featuring far more climbs than dips — can be found on the city's northeastern fringe. Let Lake Buena Vista have all the coasters. Accelerating from zero to 60 has nothing on the sensation of propelling from 0-12 to 10-0.

Welcome to Mr. Frost's wild ride.

Even Scott Frost himself, who has orchestrated UCF's astounding transition from winless to flawless (becoming arguably the nation's hottest Power Five coaching prospect along the way), seems a bit awestruck.

"I don't think so," Frost said when asked if he expected the turnaround to occur in two seasons. "I knew this place had unlimited potential; that's what I said coming in. But this had been an 0-12 program."

Those 2015 Knights had been humbled at the beginning (a 15-14 season-opening loss to FIU) and humiliated at the end (44-3 home loss to USF). Along the way, curmudgeonly coach George O'Leary had bolted. So had any semblance of confidence.

UCF lost its last five games by an average of 37.4 points.

"Nobody likes losing every single game of the season," defensive tackle Jamiyus Pittman said, "so it's easy to go into the offseason with an edge if you didn't win a game the whole year."

An edge, however, can carry a team only so far; certainly not all the way to history (UCF never has been 10-0 before) or to the cusp of a championship, with a Friday home game against USF looming.

So what changed at UCF? How did the Knights go from a punch line to a Peach Bowl candidate?

Solid recruiting, for one. The installation of a tempo offense more conducive to the Knights' collective skill set also helped. Switching Lakewood High alumnus Shaquem Griffin from safety to outside linebacker — where he became the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year — was a stroke of genius.

And UCF is faster, for sure.

"There's so many weapons and so many targets," USF coach Charlie Strong said.

But more than anything, Knights veterans say, this team — ranked 13th nationally — is more unified with its staff. Whereas O'Leary's rigid list of rules on everything from facial hair to uniform accessories confined the Knights, Frost, 42, let them breathe.

Or more specifically, exhale.

"He's creating a culture and he always says something about culture keepers," Griffin said.

Open-door policy? Frost may as well have removed the hinges. Griffin recalls spending summer afternoons in Frost's office watching SpongeBob SquarePants. Senior tight end Jordan Akins said Frost took the Knights bowling in the middle of preseason camp.

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And while a disciplinarian in his own way (Frost's mentors, after all, include Tom Osborne and Tony Dungy), he afforded the players more self-expression. Griffin said he also embraced former Knights.

"Me being here in the beginning, we had to take it on ourselves to, 'Hey, let's do a team event. Let's go here,'?" Griffin said.

"Now it's like, 'Okay, the coaches and the players, we're going bowling. We're going to enjoy ourselves. We're gonna eat pizza, we're gonna eat brownies.' … You've got a culture like that, you can't beat that, you can't."

Camaraderie, however, must be complemented by talent. That's where recruiting came in.

Dual-threat quarterback McKenzie Milton, who owns the second-best pass efficiency rating in Division I-A (186.1), was part of Frost's 2016 signing class.

So was 5-foot-8, 158-pound leading rusher Adrian Killins (629 yards, eight touchdowns), No. 2 receiver Dredrick Snelson (29 catches, 430 yards), starting center Jordan Johnson and cornerback Brandon Moore (eight pass breakups).

"(Killins) might not fit a lot of schemes but he definitely fits ours," Frost said. "He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he's got elite speed, and we knew we could use that in our system."

The '17 group produced offensive sparkplug Otis Anderson (580 all-purpose yards) and receivers Gabriel Davis and Marlon Williams (35 combined receptions).

All the aforementioned guys except Williams and Milton are from Florida.

"I think we got to the point where we were decent last year, and really took off this year," said Frost, whose first UCF team finished 6-7, losing three games by seven or fewer points.

"And I think a lot of it has to do with the buy-in of the kids and it also has to do with our ability to recruit kids right here in Florida that came in and helped us as young football players. We were able to plug in a lot of holes that way."

But plugging isn't nearly as effective without sealing and bonding.

The Knights say bonding is a key to this exhilarating joyride.

"I hired a bunch of guys that aren't just in this to make money and win football games, I hired a bunch of assistants that care about young men," Frost said.

"Every single position on our football team has improved, and I give the credit to our staff for … forging those relationships and pouring into young men's lives and making everybody better individuals, and that's made us a better team."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.