ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Central Florida has gone from winless to unbeaten in 729 days.
Less than two years after finishing 0-12, the 12th-ranked Knights completed the first unbeaten regular season in program history on Friday with a wild 49-42 victory over No. 19 South Florida.
Not only does the victory give UCF one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Football Bowl Subdivision history, but it also clinched the American Athletic Conference's East Division title. The Knights (11-0, 8-0 AAC, CFP No. 15) will host Memphis in the conference title game on Dec. 2.
"This place is really special and tonight I saw a glimpse of what it could be," said UCF coach Scott Frost, who inherited a team that finished winless in 2015. "We started at the bottom two years ago. I knew we could be good but not that it could happen this fast.
"I got to be honest if you told me at the beginning of the year that I would be sitting here at 11-0. I would have called you crazy."
In a game with 1,186 yards of offense — including a school-record 605 from South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers — it ended up being special teams that made the difference.
The Bulls (9-2, 6-2) tied it at 42 when Flowers connected with Darnel Salomon for an 83-yard touchdown, and then found D'Ernest Johnson for a 2-point play. On the ensuing kickoff, UCF's Mike Hughes found an opening on the right side of USF's coverage before breaking through and changing direction up the left sideline for a 95-yard touchdown with 1:28 remaining.
"We definitely needed a big play. I had a couple of cutback lanes and was able to find a crease," said Hughes, who has two kick return touchdowns this season.
Hughes' touchdown capped a crazy 53-second span where the Knights took an eight-point lead, South Florida tied it and then the Knights took the lead for good.
"It's a blur. I'm going to have to watch a replay to remember all of what happened," Frost said. "I was on the headset kind of in disbelief that we gave up that touchdown. I was hoping we could get a decent return to midfield so that we could make a first down or two to be in field goal range. Man, he hit that thing full speed."
McKenzie Milton, who was 29 of 44 for 373 yards and four touchdowns, said his heart skipped a couple beats watching the return.
"I thought we were going to have the chance to go down for a two-minute drill and he took the game out of our hands. I don't want to say I'm happy but I'm really happy he did that," Milton said.
South Florida drove to midfield late, but Mitchell Wilcox fumbled after a 10-yard catch at the Knights' 45 and it was recovered by Chequan Burkett.
Coach Charlie Strong said that up until Hughes' return, the Bulls had done a good job on kickoff coverage that he decided to go with his normal unit.
"I could have run my victory kickoff which was all my guys and a lot of my starters on defense," he said.
UCF led 21-7 late in the first quarter but South Florida took a 34-28 lead with 3:41 remaining in the game on Flowers' 24-yard touchdown run, which marked the first time this season that the Knights had trailed in the second half.
UCF scored on its first three drives but then had only one touchdown on the next 10 as USF went to six-defensive back defense.
"We did some good things against it but weren't expecting it. That's not a defense you typically practice much against," Frost said.
USF: Flowers gets forgotten among college football's star quarterbacks, but his career puts him among the most productive ever. He became the sixth player in FBS history with 60-plus passing touchdowns and 40 or more rushing scores.
UCF: The Knights are in the driver's seat for possibly making a major New Year's bowl for the second time in five seasons.
RECORD DAYS NOT ENOUGH
Flowers set USF single-game records for total offense and passing yards (503). He had 348 passing yards alone in the first half.
"That was a tough one, a tough loss. ... You look at the performance by Quinton and it was a great performance. Offensively, we were able to match them score by score," Strong said.
Flowers, who was 24 of 45, had six completions of 30 yards or more. He also had three runs of 15 yards or more.
"I was telling myself whatever you have to do, just do it. I was locked in and mentally focused," he said.
Tryre McCants had already set a USF single-game receiving record with 6 minutes remaining in the first half and finished with 227 yards on nine receptions.
Frost is likely to draw interest from Florida and Nebraska, but he said after the game that he would not be meeting with Gators officials on Saturday.
"I'm my representative, and I'm going to be with my wife and baby," he said. "Probably in the next 24 hours I will get rid of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram."
USF: The Bulls prepare for a third straight bowl appearance and ninth overall.
UCF: The Knights will try to make it 2-0 against Memphis this season. They beat the Tigers 40-13 in September. And then they'll see if Frost remains their coach.
Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joereedy