Sam Jackson didn’t want to redshirt. The Lakewood Ranch High graduate wanted to play college football as a true freshman.
So he did.
“That was my goal,” Jackson said.
Working his way into playing valuable minutes as an offensive lineman this year, Jackson couldn’t imagine just how special the season turned out to be.
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Jackson plays at the University of Central Florida, which polished off the season’s only unbeaten record in college football’s FBS division following a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn.
That win spurned talk that UCF was snubbed from college football’s national championship and playoff picture.
UCF national championship gear was created, the Knights’ football Twitter handle was changed to “2017 National Champions,” and Florida Gov. Rick Scott proclaimed UCF as national champs on Monday.
“Hopefully, this sets a change in the way they do things,” Jackson said. “But in my mind, that team, we were definitely national champions.”
Walt Disney World even gave UCF a parade on Sunday.
Those marketing tools in 2018 weren’t around the last time Manatee County was represented on a non-Power 5 conference team that went undefeated and wanted a shot at the national title.
Twenty years before Jackson and UCF, two Southeast High players helped Tulane achieve perfection.
Brett Timmons, who is now the Seminoles head football coach, and Alphonso Roundtree, who played in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins for two seasons, played for the 1998 Green Wave team that future Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King led to an undefeated season.
“All we asked for was a shot, and I think that’s what any competitor asks for,” Timmons said. “Let it be decided on the field. Just because on paper one would think, ‘Oh, one team would destroy the other team.’ But you’ve still got to play the game.”
That season, Tulane’s spread, no-huddle offense, under coordinator Rich Rodriguez, was a buzzsaw.
“Nobody was running what we ran offensively, so that gave us somewhat of an advantage because teams hadn’t seen it before,” Timmons said.
The Green Wave ran the table, capping the season with a Liberty Bowl victory over BYU.
That turned into another Green Wave victory, but, unlike UCF this season, Tulane wasn’t the last remaining unbeaten team.
Tennessee finished undefeated to claim the first national title of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era.
Manatee High alumnus Bernard Gooden played offensive line for the Vols that season.
On the heels of UCF’s national title claims, 1998 national championship T-Shirts commemorating Tulane’s season are now being sold.
Timmons said he’s not sure he’ll buy one yet.
“Back then, it wasn’t about marketing your brand,” Timmons said. “As you look at college football, it is about that. It’s all about brand marketing. If you look at what the AAC conference has done, they call themselves the Power 6. And they constantly call themselves the Power 6, because they are trying to get into the subconscious of the college football fans to see them not as the Group of Five, but they are a class above the rest of those guys.”
Timmons posed the question of why there can’t be a true playoff with 10 conference champions.
For Jackson, it’s a goal of his to help get the playing field level.
“I wish it would happen in my time here,” Jackson said. “... It’s not going to happen while we’re here, but we’re definitely the next stepping block to get anywhere that everything seems to be fair.”