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UCF won a whole lot more than a football game when it beat the Gators

John Romano | The polls may not reflect it, but this was a historic moment for an up-and-coming program in the Gasparilla Bowl.
Try telling these UCF Knights fans that Thursday night's 29-17 victory against Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl was a meaningless exhibition between two also-ran teams.
Try telling these UCF Knights fans that Thursday night's 29-17 victory against Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl was a meaningless exhibition between two also-ran teams. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2021

TAMPA — The game was meaningless, except maybe for those who believe that moments and memories are the world’s greatest currency.

And so, on a cool night in the hours before Christmas Eve, a football team that has been chasing relevance for as long as it has been playing games earned one of those special moments.

With the clock winding down, with one half of the stadium emptied and the other half just beginning to party, a football program earned one of those memories.

It won’t change conference standings, it won’t affect national rankings, and it may not dramatically alter the trajectory of college football in this state, but it will live forever — in both good ways 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 of the meaning of the word.

This is Florida State finally standing up to the Gators in the 1970s. It is Miami outperforming FSU and Florida in the 1980s. This is an opportunity for the Knights to change perceptions in one of the most football-rich states in the nation for prep talent.

“What I really think will happen now is recruits won’t just go after the logo,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said.

This is vindication for Malzahn, who was not shy about wanting to tangle with Florida from the moment 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 one game in Orlando.

Malzahn also approved of a series of billboards around Florida, trolling the state’s more established programs. One billboard on Interstate 75 in Gainesville suggested drivers were only 124 miles away from the future of college football in Florida.

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

Moments later, while the Knights were running out the clock, he was given a Gatorade bath by a couple of players. He got another once the game ended.

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

No, this was not a pretty football game. The Gators committed far too many penalties, and the two quarterbacks combined for a ton of ghastly throws.

And, no, it was not a significant football game. There will be no seismic shift in the rankings, and a Gasparilla Bowl title is college football’s equivalent of a participation trophy.

But some games are important just because of the investment of emotions. Make no mistake, the Gators wanted to win this game. Respect and pride are two of the most overused and overvalued words in locker rooms everywhere, but this game meant something to UF players.

That’s why the bleachers were filled, and that’s why ESPN was calling it one of the most anticipated games of the postseason. That’s why there were several skirmishes on the field once the game ended, and that’s why interim head coach Greg Knox’s voice cracked when talking about UF seniors afterward.

So, what does this really mean?

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

Yes, yes and yes.

Of course, those are not black-and-white questions and answers. There is a lot of gray involved. Malzahn can use this to his advantage, but he must close the deal with recruits. And Napier was going to have his work cut out for him no matter what the result was Thursday night.

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

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

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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