UCF against the world: Do the Knights deserve more respect, or has fatigue simply set in?
Danny White isn’t sure if he’ll hang another banner or stage another parade for winning another “national championship.” The UCF athletic director does know the mention of his football program, its plight and its excellence, have become lightning rod issues.
“There’s a whole bunch of people who want us to lose,” said the dynamic 38-year-old AD. “You and I both know that’s true.”
As we near Tuesday’s first release of this season’s College Football Playoff Rankings, that claim took a rather ominous turn last week.
A group of UCF fans planning to charter buses from Orlando for Saturday’s Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville changed their minds. After reading social media threats, the group cancelled their trip to party and photobomb the ESPN “College GameDay” cameras.
“Our purpose wasn’t worth the potential of violence we were possibly going to face,” said Chad Barr, a 2004 UCF graduate and Orlando attorney who organized the trip.
In its own way, UCF is becoming as polarized as the current political climate. You’re either all in or all out with the Knights. They might not have a chance at the Football Four, but one thing is for sure, they’re not going away.
A nation-leading 20-game winning streak could grow to 25 by the time the CFP Selection Committee meets to pick the playoff field on Dec. 1. It has a bonafide Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback McKenzie Milton. It has actively sought and scheduled Power Five opponents in the nonconference — two per year since 2014.
In the middle of that winning streak, UCF swapped out an entire coaching staff — Scott Frost for Josh Heupel — and kept on chugging.
Should any of those cumulative results matter?
“I think that they should,” White said.
Meanwhile, CFP executive director Bill Hancock held to the instructions given annually to the committee: “You should never consider another year.”
So before we proceed past Tuesday, we must consider not only that conflict but UCF’s impact on the entire enterprise. Will its general displeasure with the CFP make UCF a change agent for an eventual expansion of the four-team bracket?
“I hope so,” White said. “I think an expanded playoff would be awesome for the game. I think the last month would be so much more compelling.”
Or has UCF graduated from being gutty underdog to being the subject of UCFatigue?
“I think we’re doing the same thing other teams would do with a 20-game winning streak,” White said. “It’s disappointing to see others trash that. It’s almost like they’re trying to put us in our place.”
The last non-Power Five team to play for a national championship was BYU in 1984. That was a once-in-a-century confluence of events. Before and after that season, college football has been that rare sport that doesn’t value Cinderellas.
Certainly not ones this loud.
“If it was so easy for teams to win 20 games in a row, why aren’t more teams doing it?” Barr said.
What White didn’t know — until I told him — is he has some powerful supporters. Washington State coach Mike Leach has long been an advocate of a 16-team field, at least. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and former CFP Selection Committee chairman Jeff Long have all said they’d be open in some form or another to expanding the bracket to six.
“If an undefeated Notre Dame doesn’t get in and an undefeated UCF that has gone two years unbeaten doesn’t get in, I think you’ll hear a hue and cry for that expanded playoff,” Bowlsby said last week.
White and what is called Knight Nation are waiting tonight for the first set of rankings to dispel what they say is a general “disrespect” for UCF.
Never mind the Knights are ranked in the top 10 in both major polls — the lowest ranked of the four remaining undefeated teams — or that UCF has succeeded despite losing Milton to an injury.
Barr paid four figures to fly a banner in Orlando on Sept. 1 when Alabama met Louisville in the season opener. It read, “UCF ’17 CO-NAT’L CHAMPS 13-0” (followed by a promo for his business).
“A guy asked me, if Alabama and UCF played right now, do you think UCF would win?” Barr said. “I told him, ‘I don’t know. I just want to be there to see it.'”
Frost wasn’t so much outraged the Knights didn’t get in the playoff last year despite being the lone remaining undefeated team. It was that they were “insulted” by a No. 12 final ranking.
After his team beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, White orchestrated the celebration that included a national championship proclamation, championship rings and a parade. Who can blame him for that small acknowledgement when the likes of Notre Dame, Auburn and others claim scores of championships claimed before the AP Top 25 was first established as the official measure in 1936?
Now the Knights are threatening to go undefeated two years in a row. A 25-game winning streak would be the longest in college football since Alabama in 2015-16.
History suggests they will be rewarded, just not necessarily with a playoff spot. Before UCF in 2017, here’s how the last five teams to finish at least 13-0 have fared:
- 2013: Florida State, 14-0, won the last BCS championship
- 2010: TCU, 13-0, beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl
- 2010: Auburn, 14-0, won the national championship
- 2009: Alabama, 14-0, won the national championship
- 2009: Boise State, 14-0, beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl
You might have noticed every Power Five school listed was allowed to play for a national title. The Group of Five schools (TCU and Boise State) were not.
The current CFP revenue distribution is similar to the BCS. The Power Five conferences each get approximately $54 million annually. The Group of Five leagues (AAC, MAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, Mountain West) split $81 million. Each conference that gets a team in the CFP gets $6 million. To date, that Power Five vs. Group of Five playoff total is $24 million-to-$0.
Marketing-wise, the AAC — UCF’s league — considers itself a “Power Six” conference. A cynic might add the only way the AAC is Power-anything is if it gets a check for $50 million a year like the Big Ten.
Historically, the disparate revenue distribution has been enough to stave off anti-trust claims from the Group of Five schools. Enough money has changed hands to keep the little guys from going to court for more access.
Although that’s happened before.
“This whole notion of Power Five being so different than all the other FBS teams, it’s just not true,” White said. “If we were to play 90 percent of the Power Five teams next week, we’d be favored probably significantly.”
Why shouldn’t those cumulative results be considered? In some small way, Oklahoma’s seven national championships, for example, are in the back of the selectors minds when they evaluate each week.
“We do that for established college football brands. You look at the historical teams that are in that preseason top 10,” White said. “Like it or not, preseason rankings have an impact.”
They matter because as independent as the CFP committee purports to be, their rankings reflect there has to be some influence from the traditional polls.
In the first four years of the CFP, the committee has matched the AP Top 25 that first week on 94 out of 100 teams. The CFP and AP have matched on 46 of 50 top 10 teams.
In last year’s first CFP Rankings, it matched the exact poll position of seven teams in the AP Top 25. That AP Top 25, of course, starts in the preseason with all the preconceived biases, traditions and history you can muster.
“I don’t [think UCF’s results should be considered] cumulatively,” Bowlsby said. “But when you look at it, and when they haven’t lost for two years, I think there are some legitimate arguments raise and … some of them may be politically driven.”
White wants a system that accommodates for all undefeated teams. That essentially was the purpose of the playoff — to be able to include all the major-college undefeated teams. There hasn’t been more than one unbeaten team that qualified for the postseason since 2010 (Oregon, Auburn, TCU).
For White, scheduling can be a hamster wheel going nowhere. The better the Knights become the harder it becomes, he says, to schedule a “high level” Power Five team that would enhance UCF’s profile.
“It’s hard playing those people because they have everything to lose and nothing to gain,” White said.
This year, North Carolina was scheduled after the Tar Heels had gone to the 2015 ACC Championship Game. Pittsburgh was added to the 2018 schedule at about the same time after winning eight games. The North Carolina game was wiped out by Hurricane Florence. For the second straight year, the Knights will play only 11 regular-season games.
“I think where the committee puts us Tuesday is going to be telling,” White said, “whether a team like us ever has a chance of getting in.”
In the end, the committee can do whatever it wants. Alabama got in on the eye test last year without so much as winning its division. Why not UCF? After watching the Knights on this current run, it’s clear they can play with anyone.
Except Alabama … nobody can play with Alabama.
Or does college football as a whole even care? Is UCFatigue real?
“I know it’s not in UCF’s world,” White said. “I don’t have a lot of patience for people that turn things nasty and negative.”
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