Would it be too dramatic to say UCF has lost the player that personifies its program revival the most? Yes, the Knights took a hit when Scott Frost, the coach who led them from 0–12 to six wins to an undefeated season and an unofficial national championship in three years, left to coach Nebraska. But as far as on-field production, what happens now as the program figures out what to do without quarterback McKenzie Milton the rest of another magical season?
Raymond James Stadium was stunned Friday afternoon when Milton took a shot to his right knee on a third-down run in the second quarter of the Knights’ game against South Florida and didn’t get up. Players and coaches from both the UCF and USF sidelines swarmed the junior as he was attended to by medical personnel. After a few minutes, Milton was carted off the field. While there’s no official word on his status yet, the injury appeared severe and evoked support from around the college football world.
“Let’s go play for him,” said UCF coach Josh Heupel when asked what his halftime message would be to his team in the locker room with Milton out. “Let’s go compete for another 30 minutes, one play at a time.”
Milton is the heart and soul of this team. If the way his teammates clutched his hands and looked in his eyes as he was taken to the locker room didn’t prove it Friday, his on-field production over his career surely has. The Knights were winless three years ago. As he told Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes recently, Milton arrived one year later as a three-star prospect from Hawai’i with only two offers out of high school. Frost, then Oregon’s offensive coordinator, tried to convince former Ducks coach Mark Helfrich to sign him, but Helfrich wasn’t interested. Once Frost became UCF’s head coach in 2016, his first recruiting call was to Milton to visit campus in Orlando.
Since Milton became the starter, he’s had this team rolling. And over the last two years he’s been an underappreciated star, accounting for 79 touchdowns, more than any other active FBS player.
His success has directly contributed to UCF’s nation-leading winning streak, which was extended to 24 games with a 38–10 win over USF on Friday, and is a major reason why the program is involved in the current College Football Playoff discussion at all. The ninth-ranked Knights had a slim chance of making the four-team field before Milton was injured, but it’s important to recognize his role in their national relevance—he did lead the Knights to an unofficial national championship last year after roasting Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
His injury now carries massive implications across the college football landscape. There’s pressure on backup quarterback Darriel Mack to carry the team forward and beat Memphis next week in the AAC championship game. (Mack finished 5 of 14 for 81 yards through the air and carried it 10 times for 51 yards against USF.) Do that, and UCF will increase its winning streak to 25 games and clinch the Group of Five’s bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game. One loss, however, and the Knights will be relegated to a more insignificant bowl and the Mountain West Conference champion will likely be next in line to take its place.
Milton has been a staunch advocate for UCF’s playoff merit, even while the selection committee ranks them far outside the top four. Right now, there are four one-loss and one two-loss teams ahead of the Knights, and barring several major upsets, there’s simply no chance they would hop Power 5 teams and sneak into the playoff. Even if a few teams ahead of them were to lose over the next two weeks, Milton’s injury gives the committee more ammunition to keep UCF out.
All of that is out of UCF’s control. Until a Group of Five team navigates a perfect storm of sufficiently tough non-conference opponents, the winners of all five leagues will find the path to the playoff incredibly difficult. But the Knights have just as much to play for now, thanks to the success they have enjoyed with Milton behind center. Some people love UCF, some people hate them, and for most of this season, it seemed that Milton would be looked upon to answer his team’s doubters at the end of another perfect season. Now, his team will have to come together and overcome its next daunting challenge: staying perfect without him.