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UCF Wants Next

The undefeated Knights were one of the best teams in the nation, and their Peach Bowl win over Auburn should spark a change in the way the best Group of Five teams are perceived

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UCF’s record and story were both the best in college football this season. Two years ago, the Knights finished 0-12, losing even to Furman, a lowly FCS team that went 4-7. (Go Paladins.) By beating seventh-ranked Auburn, 34-27, in Monday’s Peach Bowl, they completed a perfect 13-0 campaign that includes a New Year’s Six victory.

I love UCF’s offense, led by sparkplug sophomore McKenzie Milton. The quarterback threw for 242 yards against the Tigers, rushed for 116, and accounted for three total touchdowns. It must be so frustrating playing against a guy who can do this:

I love UCF’s defense, led by redshirt senior Shaquem Griffin. The linebacker single-handedly recorded 12 tackles against Auburn, including 3.5 for loss with 1.5 sacks. (Single-handedly because he has only one hand. He was better than all of the two-handed players on the field Monday.)

I love UCF’s special teams, mainly because the punter likes to simulate chugging beer as a celebration:

And I love the way the school treated outgoing head coach Scott Frost—and the way that Frost treated this team. Even though he’s leaving the program to work at his alma mater Nebraska in the 2018 season, Frost stuck around to coach in this bowl game. The love he has for his players and the love his players have for him were both visible regardless of whether he’s pursuing the professional option that’s ultimately best for his career.

But the Peach Bowl caps more than just a great story. Sometimes, a game has the potential to change the very nature of a sport. That’s exactly the impression that the Knights’ New Year’s Day triumph gave off.

In the first four years of the College Football Playoff era, it’s been clear that the selection committee isn’t interested in seriously considering teams from outside the Power Five conferences. I felt that UCF deserved College Football Playoff attention on the heels of an American Athletic Conference title, but the committee didn’t agree: It didn’t even think that the Knights belonged in the top 10 of its rankings. However, the highest-ranked team from the non-power leagues is awarded a spot in the New Year’s Six bowl games—the slot UCF filled in the Peach Bowl. The people who organized the playoff system figured this concession would keep the programs from the Group of Five conferences happy.

The problem with this plan is that teams from outside the power leagues have used that slot to regularly kick ass. Boise State beat Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2014 season. Houston whipped Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl after the 2015 campaign. And now UCF has this win over Auburn, a top-10 team that downed playoff entrants Alabama and Georgia in November. Going back to the BCS era, when non-power-league teams went 4-2 in BCS bowls against power-conference opponents, there is an established history of the top teams from less-heralded leagues beating top-level competition. Including UCF’s 52-42 Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor after the 2013 season, these teams are 8-3 in big year-end bowl games.

Moving forward, the selection committee will have less of an excuse to ignore perfection from Group of Five schools. The calls for expanding the playoff—maybe to a six-team system that could include the Power Five conference champions and one team from the other leagues—will grow louder. Great non-power-conference teams shouldn’t be considered “great non-power-conference teams.” They should be considered great teams.