UCF's Perfect Season Rewrites an Old Chapter of College Football Title Controversy

No parade or statement from the selection committee can fill UCF's void, yet perhaps the Knights' predicament will help future Group of Five teams.
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If the 2017 college football season were a sports movie, UCF would be preparing for its trip to Atlanta, where it would beat Alabama on Monday, after which Scott Frost would renege on his contract with Nebraska and return to Orlando next season to do it all over again. Michael B. Jordan (with some clever hand-editing) would play Shaquem Griffin, who would invariably pick off Jalen Hurts to win the game.

But we all know by now that if 2017 were any genre of movie, it would have been horror—and that in the current college football climate, a tale of UCF winning it all is pure fantasy. On Tuesday, the day after the Knights’ 34–27 Peach Bowl win over Auburn in Atlanta brought a renewed cry for respect, College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock defended the decision to put UCF No. 12 in the committee’s final rankings. “The selection committee respected UCF,” Hancock told ESPN. "After all, they're the group that put the Knights in the Peach Bowl. To qualify for the playoff, teams need to play tough schedules against good teams—that is the way for all teams to stand out and be ranked high by the committee.”

On the way to its perfect regular season, UCF beat in-conference rival Memphis, No. 20 in the final rankings, twice. It defeated archrival South Florida, which spent the entire year ranked and sits 23rd in the AP Poll. Its road win over Maryland (38–10) came by a bigger margin than Wisconsin’s home win over the Terps (38–13). That earned the Knights a New Year’s Six bowl bid against a fascinating measuring stick. When the clock ticked to zero on UCF’s win on Monday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Knights got a boost to their reputation: They had outplayed and beaten an SEC team that had spent most of the year in the top 10 and won its brutal division.

Twelve hours later, the victory gained even more weight when Georgia took down Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama dismantled Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. That means the only team to have beat this year’s two national title participants is Auburn—which lost to UCF.

Using the transitive property to make definitive statements about sports is silly at best. But using it to suggest a parity that the playoff committee dismissed all season is plenty valid. Did UCF deserve a playoff spot? Potentially. Did it deserve to at least be in the conversation on Selection Sunday? Absolutely.

For fans of UCF or any number of good Group of Five teams who hoped the Knights might help their cause, this season must have been an exercise in joyful futility. The Knights vied for recognition they were disqualified from receiving, no matter how well they played, no matter how wide open the field for the fourth playoff spot appeared after the conference championships wrapped. Credit is due to UCF’s players for treating the Peach Bowl as an honor—and as one last middle finger to the college football establishment—rather than dwelling on their coach’s impending departure and the disrespect the committee had paid them. They should get the last laugh. Instead, they get Hancock’s somewhat tone-deaf statement justifying their too-low ranking.

In the end, the Knights have earned the right to go down as one of the biggest snubs in recent college football history—which is an accomplishment, if a backhanded one. The easy comparisons are to Boise State in 2006 and TCU in 2010, two Group of Five teams barred from the national title game despite dominant undefeated regular seasons. Boise State finished No. 5 in the AP Poll after going 13–0 and beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl; TCU missed out on a national title game that pitted undefeated Oregon against undefeated Auburn, finishing No. 2 after edging Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. That Boise State team is probably the closer parallel; like UCF, it started the year unranked and had to inch its way up the polls, gaining a spot or two each week. By its bowl game, though, Boise State had cracked the top 10—despite the fact that the No. 10 Sooners were the first and only ranked team it faced that season. UCF saw ranked teams in each of its final three wins of 2017 and won its bowl more decisively.

But to only weigh the 2017 Knights against Group of Five programs deepens a divide that should be closing. What happened to UCF this year is comparable to Auburn’s 2004 season, when it missed the national title game. (Boise State and Utah also ran the table that year, but only the Utes won their bowl game.) It’s on par with what happened to USC in 2003, when one triple-overtime loss to Cal kept the Trojans from competing for a title—though they did finish the year ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Those two teams will almost certainly have a higher final ranking than the Knights will next week after the national title is settled.

There’s no perfect solution to the UCF problem—apart from the playoff committee suddenly getting its collective head wrapped around the fact that the line between the Power 5 and Group of Five is fungible. All its current line of thought suggests is that Kansas is more likely to take home the trophy next year than UCF.

Some advocates for change endorse the idea of a separate Group of Five playoff, an idea even less palatable than the thought of the Jayhawks winning it all in 2018. All that so-called remedy would do is further divide a sport that’s already too stratified. In a perfect world, teams like UCF (and Memphis, and USF, and San Diego State, and Boise State) would be able to build themselves non-conference schedules with enough clout to force them into the conversation—but that’s another issue in and of itself.

For now, there’s nothing to do but stew. No apology to UCF from the football gods is forthcoming—but someday, perhaps, what it did this season will be the backbone of the argument that changes the way college football looks at outsiders.