ORLANDO, Florida — The UCF Knights begin their second season in the American Athletic Conference among the league's elite programs.
UCF is coming off a season in which the Knights not only won the AAC title, but beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl to cap off a 12-1 season and finish in the top 10 of the final AP poll.
Combine that with Louisville and Rutgers leaving the AAC, and it's easy to see why UCF has quickly become one of the conference's most recognizable teams.
"That's our goal," junior offensive lineman Joey Grant said during the team's Media Day on Friday. "The more conference championships we win, the more that will be true. . Our goal every year is to the conference championship and that's what we're looking to do again."
The Knights expect to be contenders again; coach George O'Leary is quite comfortable with his team heading into the season.
While UCF lost star quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson to the NFL, the Knights return nine starters on defense. They have won 10 and 12 games the past two years, establishing themselves as a program on the rise.
"Once you set a culture, you've got to stay there," O'Leary said. "You can't go up and down. The players know that. They're used to winning, and that's the expectation level, no matter who they're playing."
The Knights held their second practice of the season Friday and O'Leary said running back William Stanback has been a standout. Stanback, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound sophomore, was a second-team All-AAC pick last season and will be counted on to help replace Johnson.
The talented running back has apparently overcome some growing pains.
O'Leary was clearly unhappy with Stanback in the spring and told reporters on Friday he thought the sophomore had been reading too many of his own press clippings. That is no longer an issue.
"It was my fault," Stanback said Friday. "I had to pick up on some things that I was lacking. I'm going to get the job done."
Stanback's case may be a perfect example of why the Knights won't have to guard against letting last year's success turn into a problem. Between O'Leary and the team leaders, the Knights are focused on trying to matcher — or even improve on — the 2013 season.
"If you watch historically in sports, all of the teams that have repeated . the Bulls, the Lakers . the thing with those guys is that they were willing to push for that extra effort every year to win a championship," senior linebacker Terrance Plummer said. "That's what we have to do.
"We won it last year, but nobody cares about last year anymore. We have to push ourselves to the next level so we can win again."