Mailbag: Does UCF Have a Legitimate Shot at the Playoff?

UCF crushed Stanford this weekend to improve to 3-0. Do the Knights have a realistic path to reaching the Playoff?
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In this week’s mailbag, we answer your burning questions about everything from UCF’s Power 5 statement win, to how Florida is coping after losing its starting QB, to which outsider might crash the College Football Playoff party this year. Perhaps our answer to that last question will surprise you…

From @Hamet4Deep: Dillon Gabriel looks like the real deal. Enough to finally get UCF some respect? Or just another Boise State of the 2000s?

UCF made a statement over the weekend by rolling visiting Stanford, 45-27, behind an impressive performance by QB Dillon Gabriel. The true freshman, who is the fourth quarterback to start for UCF in its last six games, went 22-of-30 for 347 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. The last time a UCF quarterback had four passing touchdowns? That was McKenzie Milton, the beloved star QB who is still recovering from a horrific knee injury suffered in last year’s regular-season finale. Milton is a mentor to so many of his teammates, but has a special relationship with Gabriel, who replaced him as the starter at Mililani High School back home in Hawaii, too.

But as it pertains to your question, UCF didn’t earn any more respect just because it beat a respected Power 5 team. The Knights are as respected as any Group of 5 team can be at this point. They’ve gone undefeated the past two regular seasons and went a perfect 13-0 in 2017, when they beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and proceeded to crown themselves national champions. If anything, this win over Stanford just reiterated that UCF can play with just about anyone.

The unfortunate reality is that even if the Knights win every game, they’re not going to make the Playoff. Strength of schedule matters and has been the primary reason UCF has never seriously been considered one of the four best teams—despite those consecutive perfect regular seasons. The selection committee has made that clear. It’s especially unfortunate this year that Stanford, ranked No. 25 in preseason polls, was fresh off a 45-20 loss to USC. In order to beef up their credentials, UCF needed Stanford to be one of (if not the) top teams in the Pac 12, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case. The Cardinal have their own problems this season, and even them winning out might not help the Knights’ resume enough. UCF is at the mercy of top dogs Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, etc. having underwhelming seasons, which seems unlikely.

UCF athletic director Danny White said in the spring that “We make a lot of calls, but we don’t get a lot of return calls” when asked if any programs had reached out to the school to schedule a series. Then there was the whole Florida debacle when the Gators offered a 2-for-1 instead of a home-and-home, prompting White to say it wasn’t in the school’s best interest. White has suggested that getting schools from Power 5 conferences to agree to home-and-home series with UCF is becoming more difficult because of the program’s success.

But I digress. The point is, it’s not that UCF is disrespected. They're just a victim of the CFP structure that ultimately rewards Power 5 teams and only Power 5 teams.

From @mrmckee: I thought Feleipe Franks is what was holding back Florida from being elite once again. What is the Gators' QB situation looking like now that Franks’ season is over with injury?

Dan Mullen says he plans to replace QB Feleipe Franks, who’s out for six months after dislocating and fracturing his ankle against Kentucky on Saturday, with not one, but two quarterbacks.

To jog everybody’s memory really quick, Franks, a third-year starter, went down with a gruesome injury in the third quarter while the Gators were trailing 21-10. Backup Kyle Trask came in and led three fourth-quarter touchdowns drives and rallied his team to a 29-21 comeback win.

Trask, who appeared in four games last season before injuring his foot, is expected to make his first start this week against a struggling Tennessee team. But Mullen said he also plans to use redshirt freshman QB Emory Jones. Actually, both guys were told to warm up after Franks’ injury. Mullen even had a special package to run for Jones, but decided not to use it and stuck with Trask. Moving forward though, “we’re going to play both guys,” Mullen told reporters.

Trask has an opportunity right now, though, and Florida should continue to ride his hot hand. Against Kentucky, he was confident, had no problems reading the defense and was able to improvise when he needed to. And he was accurate, going 9-of-13 for 126 yards with a rushing touchdown. While Mullen may have special packages that call for Jones and his dual-threat skills, he should give Trask the chance to lead and see where things go.

From @JStew14: Who is the team no one is talking about after two weeks that you think looks like a legit playoff contender?

Wisconsin was one of the greater disappointments of 2018. A popular preseason pick to make the College Football Playoffa year ago, the Badgers went 8-5—which included a stunning home loss to BYU—suffered from QB injuries and had a defense that gave up nearly 350 yards per game.

It’s only been two games, but the No. 13 Badgers are 2-0 and have seen improvement in those areas. First, there’s stability at quarterback: new starter Jack Coan is settling into the offense, leads the Big Ten with a 76.3 completion percentage and has tossed five touchdown passes with no interceptions. Second, the defense looks better: the unit is currently ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and is limiting opponents to 107.5 total yards per game (they’ve just played South Florida and Central Michigan so far, but still).

But the team’s biggest advantage is having the best running back in college football. In two seasons, Jonathan Taylor has racked up 4,171 rushing yards, which is more than any player in the history of college football (including former Wisconsin running back and 1999 Heisman winner, Ron Dayne) has accumulated in his first two years. If he has another 2,000-yard season, he’d become one of the top five all-time leading rushers in college football in just three years. Wisconsin has only played two games, but Taylor is averaging 118.5 rushing yards and has scored five touchdowns.

If all these pieces keep clicking, Wisconsin can make some noise with its tough schedule. The first big test comes this weekend when No. 11 Michigan, which needed double OT to beat Army two weeks ago, visits Madison. The Badgers also have top-25 matchups against Ohio State on the road and Iowa at home, but should be able to run through a weak Big Ten East and one more non-conference game against Kent State.

Michigan did have two weeks to prepare for Taylor, though, so check back with us after this weekend to see how this prediction is aging.

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