The American Athletic Conference is up to 12 teams this season with the addition of Navy.
That means the conference, now in its third season, can hold a championship game for the first time.
Although UCF has won at least a share of the conference title in each of the first two seasons, coach George O’Leary is excited for what a true championship brings.
After winning the title outright in 2013, the Knights shared the conference crown with two other teams last season.
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“I think Navy comes in with a national presence just adds to the already great teams we already have here,” O’Leary said at the conference media day in Rhode Island prior to the start of fall camp. “Last year we had three conference winners, and I don’t think anyone likes that. You want to be the one winner. Now you’ll have an East champ, a West champ and then a true conference champion.
“And I believe, if our conference champion takes care of business in its nonconference games, it will be in the BCS. That’s how powerful our conference can be.”
Although Cincinnati was picked by the AAC media to win the East Division, the Knights — who lost 14 starters from last year’s team — are expected to have a say in who wins the conference.
“We have some rebuilding to do,” O’Leary said, “but the way the program is right now, it’s a matter of just replacing players. I think we’ll be a very solid football team. The conference itself is getting better each year.”
The Knights open at home Thursday against FIU before traveling across the country to take on Stanford on Sept. 12. UCF also visits South Carolina on Sept. 26.
UCF’s first big conference game comes when it plays host to Connecticut — the only AAC team to beat the Knights in two seasons — on Oct. 10 before traveling to face coach Tommy Tuberville’s Bearcats in Cincinnati on Oct. 31.
“The target is on our back,” Tuberville said, “which is fine.”
Two years ago, the Knights had their most successful season in school history. UCF went 12-1 and was unbeaten in the inaugural season of the AAC. with its only loss coming by a field goal to South Carolina.
The Knights earned an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl where quarterback Blake Bortles — now with the Jacksonville Jaguars — led UCF to a 52-42 victory over Baylor.
Last year, UCF lost its first AAC game to UConn and finished 9-4 after an 0-2 start.
The Knights claimed a share of the conference title along with Cincinnati and Memphis. UCF went on to lose in the St. Petersburg Bowl to NC State, Cincinnati lost to Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl and Memphis beat BYU in the first Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park.
This year, there won’t be a shared champion. As was the case in UCF’s former conference home, a champion will be decided on the field.
UCF lost in its final Conference USA title game appearance to Tulsa in 2012 before joining the AAC. The Knights won the C-USA title in 2010 with a victory over SMU.
Another new conference rival for the Knights could be UConn, as the Huskies are trying their best to force a rivalry with the Knights.
Not only has Huskies coach Bob Diaco installed a countdown clock in his locker room with the words “Beat UCF,” but he has created a trophy with both school’s logos and has dubbed the now-annual game the “Civil Conflict.”
O’Leary, however, acknowledges that UCF’s biggest game comes against its I-4 neighbor to the west in Tampa’s USF. This year, that game will be played on Thanksgiving night in Orlando.
After USF won the first four meetings between the schools, the Bulls stopped scheduling the Knights, and the two didn’t play from 2008 until both joined the AAC in 2013.
The Knights have won both games since the series was renewed.
“Our one rival is 60 miles away,” O’Leary said. “I understand what’s going on [at UConn], and I’m happy for it. ... I have no problem with it.”
Diaco’s Civil Conflict has brought mostly a shrug from O’Leary and the Knights.
The new trophy includes last year’s score (UConn won 37-29) but doesn’t include UCF’s 62-17 win in its first meeting with the Huskies in 2013 before Diaco arrived at the school. Diaco said he would add that score if UCF asked.
“I’m interested in seeing what the trophy looks like,” O’Leary said. “I hope they bring it with them when they come. Make sure it’s on the plane.”
Said Diaco: “Rivalries need to start somewhere.”
Last year, UCF was the lone conference team the Huskies beat as UConn finished 2-10 in Diaco’s first season.
Diaco says he wasn’t trying to get a rise out of O’Leary and the Knights by creating the rivalry game but instead is trying to “target the best, especially when they are doing their business the way we want to do it someday. Hopefully, sooner than later.”
O’Leary said he didn’t take the extra attention from the Huskies as a sign of disrespect, adding he would have just liked to have known about the so-called rivalry beforehand.
“The trophy was meant to be out of respect, to bring energy to college football and be a conversation for college football,” Diaco said. “Our team’s excited about it. It was born out of respect.”