A precedent was set in college football on Sunday: More than half of FBS teams are ineligible for the playoff.
No one announced this, but the College Football Playoff committee might as well have when it ranked 12–0 UCF, the American Athletic Conference champion, No. 10. The only remaining undefeated team in the country, the Knights were coming off two straight wins over ranked teams, and as all of college football fervently debated which flawed traditional power—Ohio State or Alabama—might get in, the team wrapping a perfect season was all but ignored.
It’s not a good look for a sport that claimed its new playoff system, now in its fourth year, would be a progressive move.
This year marked what could have been a turning point for the playoff. After Saturday’s championship games, three spots were set in stone—Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia, all bona fide contenders. But after that consensus top three, things looked murky. Even two-loss USC, left for dead after getting blown out by Notre Dame in October, seemed to be in the conversation. For the first time in the playoff’s history, the bracket was unsettled not because there were too many qualified teams, but because there might just have been too few.
It was an opportunity for the playoff to do something different. Instead, it made the most predictable move possible: It picked Alabama.
By now, you know what UCF accomplished this season. Or maybe you don’t. Given the current state of affairs, that seems like a possibility. So to refresh: Going into 2017, the Knights were not picked as the eventual AAC champion by a single media member in the conference’s preseason poll. Two years removed from going winless, they’d made a bowl in 2016 and seemed to be poised for a good season. Instead, they were great.
Playing in a conference whose commissioner advocates the league as a member of the country’s “Power Six”, UCF beat two ranked teams in 2017: USF and Memphis. The Knights scheduled a tough nonconference slate, with games against the ACC (Georgia Tech, which was canceled during Hurricane Irma) and Big Ten (Maryland, which UCF beat, 38–10), and though it couldn’t combat the fact that it plays in a division with the likes of Cincinnati, East Carolina and UConn, it made the most of the slate it was dealt, throttling those teams by an average of 31.7 points and posting a season-long average margin of victory of 23.4.
That slate makes evaluating UCF next to the top teams in the country tough, but not impossible. No. 6 Wisconsin provides an especially interesting comparison point to the Knights: In two games against Maryland with similar box scores, the Knights (38–10) won by more than the Badgers (38–13) did, and they played the Terps on the road whereas Wisconsin hosted them at Camp Randall Stadium. Still, all UCF could do this year was go undefeated and wallop as many opponents as possible, which is just what they did. And for what? Perhaps if they beat No. 7 Auburn—which went 2–2 against eventual playoff teams this season—in the Peach Bowl, some respect will be due, but probably too little, and definitely too late.
I spoke with UCF athletics director Danny White—the man who hired former coach Scott Frost and who on Tuesday hired Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to replace Frost three days after Nebraska formally hired him in the afterglow of the AAC title game—last week for a story about perceptions of the playoff four years in. White is not a man who minces words, and his annoyance at the system was not even thinly veiled. White talks a big game, telling media after Frost’s departure that the UCF job was “the most attractive football opening in the nation right now,” but so far he has been able to back it up. Going into UCF’s game against Memphis on Saturday, the athletics director was incredulous that his team was only ranked No. 12 and would all but certainly miss the playoff. He feels as though the committee has consistently under-ranked Group of Five teams, and that other polls have begun following suit.
In the BCS era, White pointed out, TCU (then in the Mountain West) went 13–0 and finished the season No. 3 in the BCS rankings. Though it wasn’t given a spot in the title game, it earned a Rose Bowl berth, and its win over Wisconsin was enough to push it over Oregon to No. 2 in the final AP Poll. Four years earlier, in 2006, an undefeated Boise State team finished No. 5 in the final AP Poll and was the only team besides Florida to receive a vote for No. 1. Since the playoff began, the highest a Group of Five team has been ranked to end the season is No. 15, Western Michigan’s finish a year ago when it was undefeated heading into the Fiesta Bowl. (Despite losing to Wisconsin in that game, it finished the year No. 15 in the Jan. 10 AP Poll.)
White is right; it seems more and more like there’s a threshold past which teams outside of the Power 5 not named Notre Dame cannot pass. Western Michigan sowed that seed last season, but its case for inclusion was weaker than UCF’s. It didn’t play a ranked team all season, and its margin of victory (24.1 points) was still a shade less than the Knights’. What UCF accomplished this year deserved consideration, and if it can’t even crack the top six, much less earn a playoff spot, then it’s hard to see how a Group of Five team ever can under these conditions. The fact that, say, Rutgers might turn around next season and do what UCF did—by the way, it won’t—and get a playoff berth is unfathomable. The line between the bottom of the Power 5 and the top of the Group of Five is finite when it should be fluid.
The committee’s adherence to name brands only perpetuates such things, which is bad for the sport as a whole. If there’s a barrier to entry to the playoff, coaches like Frost and P.J. Fleck will never stay and continue to build programs they’ve grown to love. Why should they? If championships are an impossible goal, no coach will turn down a Power 5 job, and if the committee continues to under-rank Group of Five teams while subtly discouraging top programs from adding them to their nonconference slates, the status quo will become more entrenched.
Enjoy the playoff. It will no doubt be gripping football, and the product the committee has put on the field has been—with only a couple exceptions—great. But I’m bored, and I’m tired of watching the teams that should be playing in January rather than a team that could be if only everyone broadened their horizons.