UCF made its debut in the USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 23 and No. 25 in the Associated Press poll on Sunday, much to the delight of a fan base that has longed for more national attention and a football squad that has sought respect around the country. In the coaches poll, the Knights are the highest-ranked team in the Sunshine State.

The Knights got there by winning their last five games, most recently beating Houston 40-33 in Texas before a nationally televised audience provided by ESPN2. Many of UCF’s players admitted that they received loads of congratulatory calls and text messages and pats on the back from students on campus following UCF’s first foray in the Top 25.

“I was on campus and there were a few more people telling me `great game’ and `congratulations’ and that was pretty neat,” standout right tackle Jah Reid said. “We have to come out this week and get to work and compete. Like (Coach George) O’Leary said, we should only be worried about the rankings when the season is over. It was a goal of ours coming into the season to go out there and compete and get ranked. But we can’t worry about that now and concentrate on the next game.”

The next game for UCF (7-2 overall and 5-0 in Conference USA) is on Saturday at noon against Southern Miss (6-3, 3-2) at Bright House Networks Stadium. With an East Carolina loss at UAB on Thursday and a UCF win on Saturday, the Knights can clinch the East Division title and a spot in the Dec. 4 C-USA title game. And with two more wins, UCF can lock up home field advantage in the title game.

So clearly there’s more on the line for UCF on Saturday than merely keeping up its first-ever spot in the national rankings.

“We’ve stressed that (the ranking) is nice, but now we have to move to Southern Miss,” UCF senior defensive end Bruce Miller said. “We’ve wanted (the ranking) for a while, and getting more respect around the country. It’s nice to have, but we have to focus on Southern Miss or we’ll be out of there.”

UCF is filled with loads of momentum while being C-USA’s lone unbeaten team. The Knights have won 11 conference games in a row dating back to last season. The Knights have not lost in conference play since dropping consecutive league games against Southern Miss and East Carolina last fall.

O’Leary has been vocal the last three days of the importance of being ranked, and he expressed that sentiment to UCF president Dr. John Hitt and the Board of Trustees earlier this week. O’Leary said the national ranking is sign of the steady growth of the program and an indicator of how UCF could be on the verge now of fulfilling its massive potential.

“I said to Dr. Hitt and the trustees that it’s not an end, it’s a beginning,” O’Leary said. “All of our players understand how we got ranked and that’s by playing well on all sides of the ball. It’s about hard work and winning games and this is a culmination. … It’s a nice token for how we’re playing, but the most important thing is where we’re ranked at the end of the year. And the biggest goal is still winning the conference championship.”

Were it not for two one-point losses to East Carolina (44-43) and UAB (50-49 in 2 OT) for Southern Miss, Saturday’s game might have shaped up as a championship battle at Bright House Networks Stadium. UCF has whipped East Carolina and Houston – considered to be its other top two threats in the league – each of the past two weeks.

Now, the Knights will be facing a third consecutive high-scoring, up-tempo, spread offense in Southern Miss, which ranks 21st in the country in scoring at 34.56 points a game. UCF has been equally potent, averaging 41 points in five conference games, rising up from 84th in the nation in scoring to 27th.

O’Leary knows that while there is plenty of celebrate around UCF football these days, there is still plenty to play for as well.

“We still haven’t clinched anything ourselves and we still have a very tough road ahead because Southern Miss is a very good football team,” O’Leary said. “But I think our players have handled it all really well. I continue to stress that our goal is the conference championship. That gets us everything that we need to get as far as how far we can go with the Liberty Bowl. We would have liked to have taken care of the nonconference games (losses against NC State and Kansas State), which would have elevated us more. We treat every game the same way and that’s why we try to play 12 one-game seasons. That reminds our player that that’s the only focus that week.”

John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]