ORLANDO, Fla. -- Blake Bortles got his first scholarship offer in February 2009 from the school 5.6 miles up State Road 434 from his high school. While Bortles was grateful for the University of Central Florida's interest, he thought he could do better. So he waited. The Oviedo High quarterback hit the road that summer, attending camps at Arkansas, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Clemson. At the time, Bortles was a 6-foot-4, 230-pound rising senior. He had excelled in his first season in a spread offense after playing in the Wing-T as a sophomore. Surely, some power-conference school would appreciate his measurables and his skill set.
But the big offers never materialized. Besides UCF, only Colorado State and Western Kentucky wanted Bortles as a quarterback. A few others, including Purdue, thought he'd make a good tight end. So shortly before he began his senior season at Oviedo, Bortles made a decision. "I kind of waited around for a little bit and realized nobody else wanted me," he said. "I thought I might as well go where somebody wants me."
In a way, Bortles is the personification of the UCF football program. Each has many of the elements that everyone claims to want, and yet they are nobody's first choice. Coming out of high school, Bortles had the size and the arm to play at a more prestigious program. UCF likewise has the market size and the talent base to play in a more prestigious conference than the American Athletic. But timing and circumstances conspired to put both where they are now.
On Saturday at noon, Bortles and the Knights will have a chance to prove themselves. South Carolina is coming to Bright House Networks Stadium. The Gamecocks have won 11 games each of the past two seasons. Though they lost to Georgia on Sept. 7, their hopes for an SEC East title remain very real. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will likely be the top pick in the 2014 NFL draft. ESPN cameras will broadcast the game on ABC to anyone with cable, satellite or rabbit ears.
Bortles and his UCF teammates believe they can compete with anyone. On Saturday, they can show the nation. "It's huge -- you can say it's just the fourth game of the year, but I think everybody realizes it's a big game," Bortles said. "It's on national TV. I don't think any of us have ever played a nationally televised game. It's a bigger platform. Everybody is going to want to watch Jadeveon Clowney. Us being able to share the field with him is an experience and an opportunity."
Said Knights coach George O'Leary: "When a game goes to national TV, that's a big deal to every player I know. Not just on my team. Any team. You're sort of sending your résumé out on what kind of player you are -- what kind of team you are."
Résumé is an unfortunate word choice given O'Leary's employment history, but the coach is correct. In fact, this game could do wonders for the résumé of O'Leary's program and for the profile of the university itself.
Football programs change their long-term fortunes by making the most of opportunities such as the one UCF has this weekend. Utah doesn't wind up in the Pac-12 without two undefeated seasons and a nationally televised drubbing of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. TCU doesn't wind up in the Big 12 without winning consistently and beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season. Though market size and market share are critical factors in conference expansion, the golden tickets usually go to the winners.
So far in its football existence, Central Florida has not made the most of its opportunities. The Daunte Culpepper era in the late '90s probably came too early to make a real difference; the program had just moved to Division I-A. In 2007, the year UCF left behind the rotting hulk of the Citrus Bowl and opened its on-campus stadium, the Knights had a real chance to capitalize on forward momentum. They opened the season by beating NC State in Raleigh, then returned home to christen their new stadium against Texas, only to lose by three. Had they won, they would have been the story. Now, the only thing anyone remembers about that 35-32 defeat is that school officials neglected to put water fountains in the stadium and 45,000 people nearly roasted when the $3 bottles ran out. (Water fountains were quickly added.)
Meanwhile, UCF also faced resistance from inside its own state. It was tough to recruit against Florida, Florida State and Miami from within Conference USA, so the Knights tried for most of the first decade of this century to get into the Big East. But 90 minutes down Interstate 4, at Big East member South Florida, school president Judy Genshaft worked to block UCF's admittance into the league. When the Big East finally decided to take the Knights in December 2011, the wheels were already in motion to boot the league from the top tier of conferences. Still, UCF officials dreamt of annual eight-figure checks from their league. But the Big East fell apart ahead of Central Florida's start date, and ESPN agreed to pay a pittance for the rights to televise the games of the newly christened American Athletic Conference. The Knights had left Conference USA only to wake up in a warmed-over version of Conference USA.
Conference affiliation matters beyond zeros on a check. Recruits care as well. "Recruiting in the last five years has turned into initials: SEC, ACC," O'Leary said. "When a kid commits to Alabama, it's 'I got an offer from Alabama.' But anybody else, it's 'I got my SEC offer.'"
Still, UCF doesn't have to stay in college football's new middle class forever. Conference affiliation likely is fixed for the length of the current television rights deals, but experts have predicted further consolidation ahead of the next round of deals, in the middle of the next decade. In other words, time is on the Knights' side. It is a young institution. It opened in 1968, and has, for much of its existence, struggled to shed the commuter-school label. When I graduated from nearby Lake Mary High in 1996, UCF still had a 13th-grade feel to it. Things have changed since then. Central Florida's medical school welcomed its first students four years ago. In 2011 and 2012, U.S. News and World Report named UCF one of its top-five up-and-coming schools. Administrators and faculty have worked hard to raise the quality of the degree programs offered while also making the campus more of a destination than a collection of classrooms that happen to be located near students' homes. A successful football program can only enhance that traditional campus feel. Central Florida also needs more donors, but like most young schools, it lacks old-money alums to write the big checks. Winning high-profile games tends to get the alums more excited about making donations while also making the power conferences take notice. Beating South Carolina would help. Making a major bowl would help even more.
The advantage UCF has this year over the BCS busters of the past is the final vestige of the Big East as a big-time football conference. In the last year of the current postseason format, the winner of the American is guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl. The Knights don't have to go undefeated like Utah and TCU did. They don't have to poll-watch like Northern Illinois did last year. They just have to win their league. If they can beat the Gamecocks, then they can certainly compete for the title in a conference race everyone is already handing to Louisville.
Football players can also alter their long-term fortunes by making the most of opportunities such as the one Bortles has on Saturday. NFL scouts know exactly how good South Carolina's defense is because they've been watching Clowney intently since his freshman season. A quarterback who can handle that defense probably projects well into the NFL.
Make no mistake, Bortles is already on the scouts' radar. The junior's Total QBR -- the statistic created by ESPN's stats gurus to measure exactly how much a quarterback helps his team -- ranks behind only Baylor's Bryce Petty and Oregon's Marcus Mariota. The guy ranked just behind Bortles at the moment is Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, the presumed first quarterback off the board next April. This season, Bortles is completing 71.4 percent of his passes and averaging 272 passing yards a game. If Bortles can keep up that pace with Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles hunting him, he'll be even more attractive to teams at the next level. The same goes for the rest of the Knights who, like Bortles, feel like they got overlooked in the recruiting process. "It's unparalleled," offensive tackle Chris Martin said about the anticipation around the Knights' meeting with the Gamecocks. "It builds every day. It's so exciting. It builds every day. I have trouble at home just sitting there. I can feel my heart start racing as I start thinking about the game."
That's not hyperbole from Martin. He could have said the same thing about the UCF's visit to Penn State two weeks ago, but he had watched the film and realized the Nittany Lions didn't look all that different than the Knights. He said as much and got in trouble for it. Then he was vindicated by a 34-31 victory in State College. There is no UCF player who looks like Clowney, and that's what makes this game different. Of course, there isn't a Gamecock who looks like Bortles, either. "People missed out on a gem," Martin said. "Blake's a diamond in the rough. People missed that. I bet a lot of people are ticked off that they missed that, too."
On Saturday, Bortles and the Knights will have their chance to show the power conferences exactly what they overlooked.
• Oklahoma State at West Virginia: Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen burnished his reputation as an offensive mastermind during a 2010 stint in Stillwater. But lately that reputation has taken a bit of a hit, including last week when West Virginia picked up just six first downs in a 37-0 loss to Maryland. On Saturday, the Cowboys could take Holgorson down another notch. Oklahoma State, which is coming off a bye, has one of the best defenses in the Big 12.
• Miami at South Florida: A few years ago, it seemed that USF was ready to make a serious case to be considered the equal of the Sunshine State's big three of Florida, Florida State and Miami. Now, however, the Bulls look terrible and UCF has taken their place in the state's pecking order.
• LSU at Georgia: How does Tigers coach Les Miles keep his players from getting nervous about games as big as this one? He has them hit more at practice. "There's a little more contact in weeks like this," Miles said on Wednesday's SEC teleconference. "We try to make sure there is a comfort in our preparation so we aren't overly aggressive or anxious to get to the game. We know the game will be there when we get there. Want to make sure we're ready on Saturday. We don't want to be ready on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday." It appears Bulldogs coach Mark Richt has a similar philosophy. Georgia hit in practice on Monday in addition to their usual Tuesday and Wednesday full-contact workouts.
• Florida State at Boston College: The Seminoles venture back into AQ competition for the first time since their season opener. This one should serve as a warm-up for a suddenly interesting visit from Maryland next week.
• Oklahoma at Notre Dame: What makes Blake Bell different than the Sooners quarterbacks of recent vintage? He requires more intricate preparation from the opposing defense. While Bell made his name over the last two years as a battering ram near the goal line, Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly believes Bell's arm gives Notre Dame the biggest cause for concern. "The biggest challenge is him having runs and passes built into the same play," Kelly said. "That's where it really becomes a challenge, because the kid can throw the football. I think that's being overlooked. He throws the ball very well. I think we see him more as a passing threat."
• Ole Miss at Alabama: Contrary to popular belief, the Crimson Tide may not breeze through the eight weeks between its victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 14 and its game against LSU on Nov. 9. The Rebels have two star receivers (Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell) and run the kind of offense that Alabama dislikes defending. Meanwhile, Ole Miss embarks on possibly the roughest four-game stretch in the country. After visiting Tuscaloosa, the Rebels visit Auburn. Then they host the Aggies and LSU.
• Texas A&M at Arkansas: We also assumed that the Aggies would breeze through their games between their loss to Alabama and their meeting with LSU on Nov. 23. After seeing the defense Texas A&M played against the Crimson Tide, however, it's probably a mistake to count on blowout wins.
• Arizona at Washington: The Huskies have already beaten Boise State and Illinois. The Wildcats have played a cottony-soft schedule so far. That doesn't mean Arizona isn't better. If Washington looks ahead to Stanford, the Huskies will be in for a fight.
• Florida at Kentucky: The Gators, who lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to a broken leg against Tennessee, lost defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a torn ACL suffered in a non-contact drill in Tuesday's practice. The loss of Easley may be worse. He was a Chucky doll-owning, graham-cracker inhaling tone setter who made everything easier for the likes of linemates Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell. Florida's defense will still be very good, but Easley took the Gators to another level.
• Wisconsin at Ohio State: Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer told reporters that quarterback Braxton Miller "will probably start" against the Badgers. This game should tell us a lot about Ohio State and about the Big Ten in general. Most of us handed the Leaders Division to the Buckeyes before a game was played, but Wisconsin's run game has been simply devastating. The conference is probably better off with one team running the table and potentially competing for the national title, but the regular season will be more fun if Ohio State gets challenged.
• Stanford vs. Washington State (in Seattle): Cardinal All-America guard David Yankey will miss this game as he deals with "a family situation" at home in Georgia. Star safety Ed Reynolds will miss the first half because of a targeting penalty he committed in the fourth quarter of last week's win over Arizona State. Stanford will need to stay focused against a team that already has gone down to Los Angeles and beaten USC.
• Cal at Oregon: Remember when Bears players faked injuries to slow the Ducks' offense? Those days are long gone. Cal coach Sonny Dykes' team will try to run more plays than Oregon.
• USC at Arizona State: The Trojans' defense has kept this season from becoming a complete disaster, and guess what? A good defense can keep things afloat for a long time. But this will be the best offense USC has seen so far.
Kingsbury goes Hollywood
So E!, the entertainment network that allows us to keep up with the Kardashians, decided to do a segment on Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury's uncanny resemblance to actor Ryan Gosling. In it, we learn that Kingsbury favors designers Marc Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger. Kingsbury did not, however, tell E! if he had chosen between Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb at quarterback. (He also didn't elaborate on his critique of the new Miley Cyrus music video.) Also, it should be known that your humble correspondent has always been on the cutting edge of Kingsbury fashion news. In February, Kingsbury revealed to SI that Red Raiders coaches would sport flat-front pants on the sidelines. "No pleats, man," Kingsbury told SI exclusively. "Pleats are a tough look to pull off."
Kiffin made a funny
If USC's Lane Kiffin did stuff like this more often, his own team's fans might not be calling for his firing. After the NCAA announced that it would dial back the scholarship losses it imposed on Penn State, Kiffin tweeted this:
Congrats to Coach Bill O'Brien and his team!— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) September 24, 2013
So he IS self-aware. Now, about those bubble screens.
On the menu
If you've just won the Iowa-Minnesota game and don't know what to do with Floyd of Rosedale, head across the Mississippi River to J.D. Hoyt's Supper Club and put that porker to good use. J.D. Hoyt's serves pork chops the size of your head, and I guarantee they taste better when seasoned with victory.