ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Blake Bortles. Daunte Culpepper.
Those names don’t have the same ring as Michigan quarterbacks Tom Brady, Rick Leach or — dare we say it — Jim Harbaugh.
But those quarterbacks were instrumental in helping Central Florida, one of the younger FBS programs, establish itself. Twenty years after playing its first FBS game in 1996, the Knights face Michigan (1-0) at noon Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
UCF doesn’t have the same brand history as some of its opponents, particularly Michigan. But in 1998, Culpepper made college football take note of UCF and its 9-2 season as an independent, and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, won that year by Texas RB Ricky Williams.
Bortles, who now plays for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, won 22 games in three seasons at UCF, helped the Knights win the American Athletic Conference championship in 2013 and helped the Knights earn their first BCS bowl-game berth, a 52-42 win over Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in January 2014.
Now, a former quarterback not named Culpepper or Bortles looks to bring UCF back to respectability, following an 0-12 season in 2015. Scott Frost, a former quarterback at Stanford (1993-1994) and Nebraska (1996-1997), is in his first year as the Knights head coach.
Frost spent the previous seven seasons as an assistant at Oregon, first as its wide receivers coach (2009-2012) and then as its offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach (2013-2015), and helped groom Marcus Mariota into a Heisman Trophy winner and an NFL prospect. Mariota now plays for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
Michigan fans remember Frost for another reason, for a declaration he made in 1997, when he was Nebraska’s quarterback. He contended that Michigan and Nebraska should split the national championship.
His appeal worked. Michigan was awarded the Associated Press national championship and Nebraska was awarded the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll national championship.
Nineteen years later, he insists he’s put that debate in the proverbial rearview mirror.
“We felt like we were the best team,” Frost said earlier this week. “They felt like they were the best team, and we’ll never know. Yeah, it was a great year for me. And it has absolutely no bearing on this Saturday.”
At this point, it’s merely coincidental that Frost comes to Michigan.
The game Saturday, which will earn UCF a $1.5 million payout, was set well before the idea of Harbaugh at the helm was a twinkle in anyone’s eyes — save for the die-hard fans, who had been lobbying since the firing of Rich Rodriguez in 2010 for the former Michigan quarterback to come home to Ann Arbor.
The game Saturday was announced in October 2013, when Frost was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Ducks — right around the time Michigan began its second-half limp that fall, going 2-5 in the final seven games of an uncharacteristic 7-6 season.
Right around the time Central Florida was in the early stretch of a nine-game winning streak.
Right around the time Harbaugh was in the middle of his third season with the San Francisco 49ers.
Now, Michigan and UCF are in vastly different places when they meet, and led by different faces. Michigan is coming off a 63-3 drubbing of Hawaii, and UCF looks to continue its pace after earning its first win since December 2014, 38-0 against South Carolina State.
“This game is on our schedule,” Frost said earlier this week. “I don’t want our kids to be afraid to play anybody. I think our guys are excited to go up there and look that challenge in the face and take swings at them.”