ATLANTA -- UCF coach Gus Malzahn sat back in his chair at the College Football Hall of Fame with a sly grin and quiet confidence shortly before the Knight Nation's Big 12 Celebration event. This stop is the latest in a barnstorming tour across major metropolitan areas up and down the East Coast. Why? UCF is big time now. The Group of Five power is ready to make a splash when it joins the Big 12 on July 1 along with BYU, Houston and Cincinnati.
The former longtime Auburn coach is not only ready for the transition, but also an opportunity to set the tone for the new era of UCF football.
"This is a championship program. Our goal is to win the championship," Malzahn said. "It's going to be tough, but that's the way we are recruiting. We've got some really good players and coaching staff. We just have to bring our lunch every week."
The move to the Big 12 wasn't too shocking for Malzahn. UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir hired him on Feb. 15, 2021, and the Big 12 expansion news was announced in June 2022. It wasn't too hard to connect some dots on what the future held for the UCF football program.
It was all part of the current wave of conference realignment chaos that started in July 2021 when Texas and Oklahoma announced their departure for the SEC. The cards were falling in the direction of a UCF program that sits in a major metropolitan area and right in the heart of one of the hottest vacation spots in the world in Orlando, Florida.
"When I took the job, I thought there was a really good chance that we would be going to the Power Five," Malzahn said. "I didn't know it was going to be Big 12. But Terry did a fantastic job of getting that thing going. I think it's a really good fit for us."
The powers that be are on the same page.
"I think having a consistent championship program, winning championships, I think that we can absolutely get there [in the Big 12]," Mohajir said.
This isn't your typical transition, though. The new era of college football makes it a little easier to beef up a roster in the short term, thanks to the mobility players have on a year-to-year basis.
Malzahn hit the transfer portal hard during the most recent recruiting cycle, luring 15 players to Orlando, eight of whom come in with Power Five experience. This influx of talent comes on the heels of a 2022 class that included 14 transfers, 11 of whom brought experience from the Power Five level.
"The last two years, when we recruit somebody, they get really excited," Malzahn said. "We have a great chance to take the next step in recruiting. It's already been an attractive place before the portal really got rolling for transfers. The last two years, we've got some really good transfers."
The identity of the Big 12 has been its wide-open offenses. From Vince Young at Texas, Mike Leach at Texas Tech and the Heisman Trophy signal-callers at Oklahoma, competing in the Big 12 requires one of the most dynamic schemes in the country. That fits right into the game plan for UCF, which finished with the AAC's second-best offense in 2022.
"You gotta score points," Malzahn said. "It's a great offensive conference. I think everybody knows that. They have some great quarterbacks."
Malzahn and the Knights return a stud signal caller. John Rhys Plumlee, a former Ole Miss starter, threw for 2,586 yards, rushed for 862 and accounted for 25 touchdowns (14 passing, 11 rushing) for the Knights last season. Plumlee led the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2019 with 113.6 in nine contests under center for then-coach Matt Luke but switched to wide receiver when Lane Kiffin arrived in 2020. The dual-threat QB was a little rusty when he arrived at UCF, but Malzahn believes Plumlee could work his way into NFL Draft discussions.
"He's phenomenal," Malzahn said. "[When he got here] he hadn't played quarterback in two years. We ran him a little bit more than we'd like. He got banged up late. If he hadn't, I think it would be different."
Malzahn and Mohajir feel like they have the perfect recipe: a massive student body of 68,442, momentum generated from recent success at a lower level and a changing college football landscape that allows programs to build championship-caliber rosters in short order.
All those ingredients could play a part in UCF becoming the next Big 12 power with Malzahn leading the way.