The 1997 UCF Golden Knights football season was the thirteenth and final for Gene McDowell as the head coach of the Golden Knights. Assistant coach Alan Gooch was named the national assistant coach of the year in 1997, and on January 20, 1998, in the wake of a federal fraud investigation concerning improper cellular phone benefits and use, McDowell resigned as head coach.
UCF started to gain notoriety in 1997, playing a higher-profile schedule, including several SEC teams. The Golden Knights narrowly lost to Ole Miss on opening day. Tied 17–17 in overtime, Ole Miss scored a touchdown on their first possession. UCF scored a touchdown, a 21-yard pass from Daunte Culpepper to Charles Lee. After a timeout, and further consideration, the Golden Knights elected to go for the two-point conversion and try for the win. Daunte Culpepper attempting a quarterback draw up the middle, but was tackled just inches short of the goal line. UCF fell by the score of 24–23.
A week later, UCF nearly pulled off another upset of an SEC team. The Golden Knights trailed South Carolina just 14–10 at halftime. In the third quarter, UCF shocked the Gamecock crowd with two quick touchdown scores. Daunte Culpepper connected with Siaha Burley for a 71-yard, and a 29-yard touchdown, and a surprising 24–14 lead. In the end, South Carolina rallied for a 33–31 victory.
After the two-point loss at South Carolina, the Golden Knights gained considerable national attention on September 13 at #6 Nebraska. UCF led the Cornhuskers 17–14 at halftime. The players received congratulatory cheers from the Lincoln, Nebraska crowd as they headed into the tunnel. UCF, however, could not hold off the powerful Cornhuskers in the second half, and fell by a final score of 38–24. After the game, Nebraska dropped a spot in the rankings, and UCF (for the first time) received a single vote in the AP Poll.
Lauded by media as the "best 0–3 team in the nation," over 41,000 fans showed up at the Citrus Bowl for UCF's home-opener against Idaho. The Golden Knights routed the Vandals 41–10 for their first win of the season. The Knights won five of their last eight games, including a perfect 4–0 record at home.
At the end of the season, Daunte Culpepper set 15 school records, and was named a finalist for Davey O'Brien Award. He was also named a semi-finalist for the Football News Offensive Player of the Year. Hearing impaired tailback Dwight Collins received the Disney's Wide World of Sports Spirit Award, and running backs coach Alan Gooch who worked with him, was named the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year.
After only two seasons in Division I-A, UCF was already beginning to earn a reputation as a "scary" team on the road. Their near-misses against high-profile teams was in contrast to their predicted status as a mid-major, non-conference school. It started prompting some reluctance among larger schools of scheduling the Knights in future seasons.