George O’Leary loses a game… and his four-leaf clover

Anyone who has been through enough college football seasons to appreciate the rhythms of this sport (or a lack thereof) knows that even the most discouraging week-one losses can be overcome.

The sport with no preseason games puts a lot of 19- and 20-year-old athletes into a competitive cauldron they’re simply not used to. It can take four games for players to fully settle in, but at least one game — the first one — should generally be expected to turn into a slopfest. The main goal for teams in week one is to win without getting anyone hurt, damn the style points. No one judges teams for the College Football Playoff or remembers the quality of their seasons based on how pretty they looked in week one. Just getting the “dubya” and fixing problems — in the natural course of time — matters in week one.

When do fans get upset, and pundits a little more surprised? When the team which plays that sloppy week-one home game doesn’t even beat a team it should handle.

This is the very uncomfortable situation in which the UCF Knights find themselves after a most improbable 15-14 home loss to Florida International on Thursday night, the opening night of this new college football season.


Let’s first give a measure of credit to Florida International. Ron Turner — who guided Illinois to the Sugar Bowl in the 2001 season (how many remember that?) — had to endure a 1-11 season in 2013. What made his situation worse was that Turner was hired after Mario Cristobal was inexplicably let go. (FIU has not exactly been the model of an enlightened athletic department — it once hired Isiah Thomas to coach its basketball team.) Turner was not the product of a handoff from one admired coach to another. He was seen as a downgrade. Yet, here he is, the coach of a team that improved to 4-8 in 2014 and now has a signature win to tout before Labor Day.

Turner’s Golden Panthers shut out UCF in the second half, limiting the Knights to 154 yards after halftime and just 182 after UCF took a 14-3 lead midway through the second quarter. Just one defensive lapse and one UCF score in the second half would have made it exponentially more difficult for FIU to win on the road, but the Golden Panthers pulled off the post-halftime shutout. They earned this win, holding UCF under 300 yards for the game while responding to the Knights’ early flurry. This win gives Conference USA an immediate boost, something other teams in the league might be able to draw strength from this weekend and beyond.

For UCF, though, the basic plan of “just win, gain experience, and worry about the details later” never materialized. It’s a marked change from life just two years ago in Orlando.


George O’Leary — even with the resume flap and the ruination of his dream job at Notre Dame before it ever could begin — has lived a charmed life. He has this awful episode attached to his name. It is not just a mistake, but a blight on his career. Yet, in terms of winning games, O’Leary is extremely talented. He did well at Georgia Tech, and he’s been better at UCF. His triumph over Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl marked the hight point of his career, and it offered the Knights the hope that they would become the long-term king of the new American Athletic Conference.

With Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson gone, 2014 was not likely to match 2013’s lofty standards, but a nine-win season represented another solid body of work for O’Leary. This season, UCF did have to replace a lot of its back seven on defense, but giving up a mere 15 points to FIU represents a fairly credible performance. Getting shut out in the second half — when only a single score would have been decisive or close to it — represents not just “one of those nights,” in which some things go wrong, but a complete failure of nerve.

Justin Holman was hardly great at quarterback against FIU, but the returning veteran did not throw a pick on a night when UCF didn’t turn the ball over, either. This was a loss based on impotence and ineffectiveness more than sloppiness. (UCF committed only three penalties for 20 yards.) Such a plot path cut against expectations in this sense: If UCF was going to lose, one would have thought the Knights would have gifted FIU with a turnover and a short field, or a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty to fuel a scoring drive by the Golden Panthers. Those things did not happen… and UCF still couldn’t translate its relatively clean stat sheet into a win.


When UCF marched to the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago, it won a lot of close games over struggling teams — at Temple, at home versus South Florida, and in other situations. This time, O’Leary’s four-leaf clover didn’t enter Orlando.

UCF has to work to overcome its current predicament. We’ll see if a controversial but undeniably credentialed and skilled coach can make something of a season which took a wrong turn on opening night.


About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |