After 10 years in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), the University of Central Florida is officially a member of the Big XII Conference. Effective June 1, 2023, UCF entered the Power Five Conference as the youngest school ever to do so, established in 1963. Among BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston, UCF is one of four schools entering the Big XII this summer. There are, however, intrigues about how the Knights will do in this new, highly competitive conference with historically successful schools such as Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech.
Here are some things UCF’s sports teams can look forward to, potential rivalry formations and continuations and predictions on what UCF’s sports teams can expect in the Big XII.
A trend you might see throughout UCF’s major sports is how it falls victim to the transfer portal. Players come in and out of schools yearly, but the Knights’ football team was hit particularly hard. UCF lost three three-star recruits to the portal: Mikey Keene, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, and Ryan O’Keefe. Despite gaining players through the portal, these three were not only keystones in UCF’s success, but they were fan favorites.
As for the Big XII, it might be a while before ESPN’s College Gameday returns to Orlando. According to 247Sports, TheTopTens, and Bleacher Report, the Big XII is the third best conference in college football, with three teams making the top 25 last year: TCU (2), Kansas State (14), and Texas (25). Nevertheless, UCF’s first three football games against Baylor, West Virginia, and Oklahoma sold out before entering the Big XII.
Unfortunately, the men’s squad struggled in postseason basketball last year and might continue to descend in the 2023-2024 season. UCF lost Taylor Hendricks to the NBA Draft (9th overall to Utah) and core players like Ithiel Horton, Jayhlon Young, and Tyem Freeman to the transfer portal. Luckily, the portal also gave the Knights Jacksonville’s Omar Payne and Missouri-Kansas City’s Shemarri Allen.
The Knights also look to build on younger players like Thierno Sylla and Tyler Hendricks. After a painful offseason, UCF looks to improve its roster’s talent and physicality to compete with Big XII opponents like Houston and Kansas. Future recruits, however, may be more inclined to join UCF as the Big XII offers brighter lights than many other conferences.
The women’s basketball team is similar to the men’s team. Following a worse season than the men’s team, UCF’s women’s basketball program looks to take advantage of its growing talent in Sierra Godbolt, Taylor Gibson, and Laila Jewett and take advantage of Anzhané Hutton’s defensive prowess.
However, unlike the men’s squad, the women’s team’s most recent acquisition is staff member Marquette’s Tasha Taylor. Coach Taylor joins UCF as a new assistant coach under head coach Sytia Messer. Having gained a reputation for defensive prioritization, Coach Taylor helped Marquette keep opponents under 58.2 points/game and 38.9 field goal percent/game for two years.
The Knights are coming off a solid season but have to say “goodbye” to catcher Ben McCabe as he was drafted No. 262 in the 2023 MLB Draft to the Colorado Rockies. McCabe was awarded a spot on the All-American Third team last month and the Southeast All-Region First Team. He is the first Knight to do so since Zach Rodgers in 2015.
UCF’s record against conference opponents was concerning despite a strong home record. For example, Houston held a 2-1 record against the Knights last year with a series point differential of 32-26 throughout three games in the Cougars’ favor. On the other hand, UCF beat Cincinnati 2-1 despite a series point differential of 24-24 throughout three games. Hopefully, the Knights can trust their future with the brilliant offense of Andrew Sundean and Nick Romano, but it might take a while before UCF makes a splash in nationals.
The softball team just came off a spectacular 40-21 season with a 15-3 record against AAC teams and a 3-2 record against Big XII teams. Chloe Evans and Aubrey Evans led UCF’s batting, while Sarah Willis led UCF’s pitching. Also, Jada Cody climbed her way up UCF’s all-time RBI leader, finding herself in 3rd place.
The softball program can expect turbulence next season as four Big XII teams made ESPN’s top 25 softball colleges despite UCF barely missing the mark. Nevertheless, the Knights can expect another great season from its softball team as its roster looks nearly identical to last year’s, with two transfer portal acquisitions: Ava Justman and Stormy Kotzelnick.
Men’s tennis had a mediocre season, finishing with the same 11-12 record as the ladies. Nevertheless, its 5-1 record against AAC opponents and 1-0 record against Big XII opponents is promising news.
The numbers indicate potential, but this squad’s individual and collective talent is extraordinary. With the incredible tenures of Lleyton Cronje and Bogdan Pavel coming to a close, it’s time for youth like Mehdi Benchakroun, Liam Branger, and Yassine Dlimi to take their places as the bright future of UCF tennis.
Women’s tennis also had an average season with a record of 11-12 overall and 1-4 in away games. As for conference matches, UCF went 1-1 against AAC opponents and 1-0 against Houston, another future Big XII member.
Unfortunately, the women’s team is approaching the final years of its stars Sophia Biolay, Anique Kattenberg, and Noel Saidenova as they enter their senior year. The women’s team looks to rely on recruiting for future competition against Big XII opponents.
The men’s team struggled this season, but show promise moving forward. With a 6-7-0 record and a concerning 3-6 record against AAC rivals, the Knights look to improve their efficient offense and effective defense.
Additionally, UCF added Carter Sadin as its new Director of Operations, a phenomenal recruiter who led Oglethorpe University to a Southern Athletic Association championship appearance in 2021. Assuming Sadin’s recruiting goes well, expect UCF’s men’s soccer team to make a splash as it heads into the Big XII.
Kristen Scott was drafted by the Orlando Pride with the 41st overall pick earlier this season, depriving the Knights of her scoring. The Knights’ defense also took a hit as its star defender, Georgia Eaton-Collins, signed with the Women’s Super League’s Leicester City in January. Luckily, Scott and Eaton-Collins were around to support arguably UCF’s best sports team, finishing with a 9-2-7 overall record, a 7-0 record against AAC opponents, and a 2-0-1 record against Big XII opponents.
Unfortunately, the Knights lost to the UCLA Bruins: the eventual women’s soccer champions. Despite its historic season and tournament appearance, UCF’s women’s soccer team is entering a rebuilding stage.
Last year’s volleyball team was exceptional, with a 28-2 overall record, a 19-1 conference record, a 5-1 record against Big XII teams, and 19 sweeps. McKenna Melville led the Knights’ offense this historic season, and Abby Hansen’s blocking ability led the defense.
UCF’s volleyball program, like women’s soccer, approaches a rough patch as many players move on from the black and gold. As Melville graduates, opponents like Houston – responsible for one of UCF’s two losses – continue to grow alongside its rivalry with the Knights. UCF plays AAC and Big CII rival Cincinnati as the season opener, but expect Knight Nation to flood the stands when the Cougars visit on November 3.
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