On Saturday, the defending national champion staged a stirring comeback victory in its conference title game behind its backup quarterback, capping an undefeated regular season, and stayed put in the College Football Playoff rankings.
In fact, both defending national champions did.
As Alabama eked out a 35-28 victory over Georgia to punch its ticket to the playoff, Central Florida outscored Memphis 35-3 in the second half of its AAC title matchup to extend its win streak to 25 games. But despite having gone two years without losing, during which time the Knights have lost head coach Scott Frost to Nebraska and lost star quarterback McKenzie Milton to a gruesome and possibly career-ending knee injury, UCF will not be rewarded with a chance to play for the CFP national title. Alabama is going to the four-team playoff for the fifth time in its five-year existence, while UCF finished eighth in the committee’s final poll and is headed to the Fiesta Bowl, where for the second straight season it’ll be the Group of Five’s single designated representative to the New Year’s Six bowl games.
Last year Alabama won the CFP and finished first in both the AP and USA Today coaches’ polls, while UCF, despite finishing no higher than sixth in any of those rankings, claimed a national championship by virtue of something called the Colley Matrix. And even though they were ridiculed for doing so, the Knights were absolutely right to print up banners, order rings, and hold a parade. It was a cheeky, almost Dadaist thumbing of the nose at college football’s power structure. After UCF received just a pat on the head and token inclusion in the Fiesta Bowl in exchange for a second straight undefeated season, it’s clear that the selfsame power structure will never let the Knights have a shot at an actual national title.
The various polls and rankings that govern FBS football are useful in a way that polls aren’t in other college sports. Division I men’s baseball, hockey, and basketball teams play dozens of games each year, and their respective playoffs include a much larger percentage of schools in the division—19.3 percent of men’s basketball teams, 21.5 percent of baseball teams, and 26.7 percent of men’s hockey teams make the NCAA tournament, compared with 3 percent of FBS teams, which is double what it was five years ago. In baseball, basketball, and hockey, there are enough games for the standings to give a better representation of who’s good, enough interconference competition to provide meaningful data on each team’s quality of competition, and a big enough tournament that any team with a legitimate shot at winning the national championship has the chance to make good on that potential in a playoff game.
Not so for football, in which teams play 12 games a season, 13 if they make a conference championship game. Most of those games come against conference competitors, and Power Five schools tend to load up their nonconference schedules with easy wins, rather than playing each other to build up a basis for interconference comparisons. In order to create a definitive ranking of the best FBS teams, poll voters and CFP committee members have to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions and values, or mathematical models, which is a fancy name for quantifying one’s assumptions and values. The idea is that each week, we know with some certainty who the 25, or four, best teams in the country are.
If that’s how it actually worked, UCF would have no complaint. Yes, the Knights went undefeated, but against the kind of schedule that necessitated the invention of “ain’t played nobody” as a college football idiom. The Knights beat Memphis twice, beat Pitt by 31, and beat Cincinnati—the only team on their schedule that received so much as a vote in the final AP poll—by 25. Even Notre Dame played tougher competition. If voters in this hypothetical are allowed to take recent form and injuries into account, in essence emphasizing “best team at the moment” over “best team throughout the whole season,” UCF’s case is even weaker, because Milton’s injury, sustained November 23 against South Florida, is a gigantic blow to UCF’s potential ability to hang with the best Power Five teams.
Only that’s not how it works in practice. Preseason polls establish a pecking order: Win, and you move up the ladder. Lose, and you fall. This is independent of team quality; big underdogs that play Clemson or Oklahoma close (or Alabama, but big underdogs don’t play Alabama close) don’t climb up the rankings, and teams that lose games on incorrect refereeing decisions suffer the same fate as teams that lose legitimately. Win enough games in one season, and a team will start higher up the ladder the next.
After finishing 13-0 in 2017 (and beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day), UCF started 2018 ranked 21st in the AP poll. That’s two spots behind Florida State, which went 7-6 in 2017, finished unranked, and lost head coach Jimbo Fisher, who signed a $75 million contract with Texas A&M. By the time the first CFP rankings came out before Week 10, UCF was 7-0 and in 12th, behind seven one-loss teams and two-loss Florida. Despite winning their last five games, the Knights managed to climb only four spots on the ladder: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma were ahead of UCF in those initial rankings and never lost, while Ohio State leapfrogged UCF in Week 11 after beating 2-6 Nebraska at home by five points. Georgia and Michigan started ahead of UCF and stayed there despite both teams losing their final game.
Clearly, eighth place and a Fiesta Bowl bid is the least the CFP committee could do for UCF. The highest-finishing conference champion from the Group of Five is guaranteed a New Year’s Six bid. If UCF had failed to come back against Memphis on Saturday, Fresno State would have grabbed the Fiesta Bowl berth, while UCF would likely be headed to the Upstate Mississippi Bowl, presented by Andy Garcia saying, “We’d be happy to feature this game in our Tunica location,” in Ocean’s 13. There are more two-loss teams from major conferences ahead of UCF than behind it.
Despite Group of Five teams nominally being in the same competition as their richer Power Five cousins, there is a cap on how high the CFP committee is willing to rank a Group of Five team. This was true under the BCS, when in 2007 undefeated Hawaii went to the Sugar Bowl while two-loss LSU went to the national championship game, but any hope that a four-team playoff would open the door for a Group of Five national championship bid has evaporated.
The current 13-person CFP committee features 10 current or former coaches, players, and administrators with links to Power Five schools. That includes the five sitting Power Five athletic directors who serve on the committee, as mandated by the group’s rules. This committee doles out payments to conferences based on their performance in the CFP rankings: $6 million per team for making a semifinal, $4 million per team for making a non-semifinal New Year’s Six bowl. Moreover, each conference gets a base cut that reinforces the financial divide between haves and have-nots: Power Five conferences get $54 million each, while Group of Five conferences split just over $81 million. Giving a semifinal berth to a Group of Five team takes millions of dollars from the conferences that control the playoff; there’s no reason for a committee chaired by a Power Five athletic director (Oregon’s Rob Mullens) to do that, particularly when college football blue bloods bring big TV audiences with them.
Power Five conferences are made up of schools that are some combination of large, rich, and good at football for some extended period in the 20th century, and the mere existence of such institutions would reinforce a particular power structure even if the rewards of the playoff weren’t so brazenly tilted toward the institutions that control who gets in. The power conference structure and small playoff limit interconference competition between Power Five and Group of Five teams and serve as a buffer to keep rich and big schools ahead of schools from lower castes. In order to have a shot at a national title, a team like UCF would have to join a Power Five conference, like one-time mid-major BCS spoilers Utah and TCU. In 2015, TCU was ranked second in the preseason AP poll, and even after losing twice finished 11th in the CFP rankings and climbed to seventh in the AP poll after bowl season. If UCF had started that high on the ladder this year, it’d be in the playoff now.
It’s possible that expanding the playoff to eight teams would change the fortunes of future Group of Five contenders, but not certain. College football has always managed to keep non-power-conference teams just outside the national championship picture: When the BCS allowed two teams to play for the national title, undefeated TCU finished fourth and undefeated Boise State finished sixth in 2009. Undefeated TCU finished third in 2010, and one-loss Boise State finished seventh in 2011. An eight-team playoff would probably include automatic bids for conference champions, leaving just three at-large spots. This year, three Power Five schools that didn’t win their conferences, plus Notre Dame, finished ahead of UCF in the final CFP ranking. Besides, this outrageous eighth-place finish for UCF is the highest any Group of Five team has ever placed in the final CFP ranking. Short of giving an automatic bid to all 10 FBS conferences, there’s no guarantee a Group of Five team would ever get a shot to play for the national title.
College football is hardly the only sport to codify its own economic stratification. In 1992, the teams in the top flight of England’s soccer pyramid broke away from the national association to create the Premier League, a separately governed entity that could create its own more lucrative TV contracts. This has had the effect of cementing the dominance of teams that were rich and successful in 1992; Manchester United alone has won the title in half of the Premier League’s 26 seasons. Only six teams have won the Premier League title; only one team, Blackburn Rovers, has been relegated after winning the title, and only two clubs, Manchester City and Leicester City, have won the title after having been relegated from the Premier League. Manchester City required the investment of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, who have poured so much money into the club that the chairman of Italian giants Juventus claimed his family—who are not just normal rich folks, but so rich they own almost a third of Fiat Chrysler—did not have the means to compete. When Leicester City, who are owned by mere billionaires, climbed up from the second division to win the title in 2016, it was one of the greatest underdog feats in the history of team sports.
Each team in the Premier League gets a cut of TV revenue—a base payout, plus bonuses for finishing higher in the league table and having games broadcast on national TV. The 2016-17 Premier League champions, Chelsea, took home £150.8 million that year, while last-place Sunderland received £93.5 million. Unlike college football, English soccer features promotion and relegation, so Sunderland played the 2017-18 season in the EFL Championship, England’s second tier, where that season’s winners, Wolverhampton, received just £7.4 million from the league’s TV deal. That financial gap is compounded by the fact the top finishers in the EPL get to enter continental tournaments, the Champions League and Europa League, where they can earn more money in prizes and TV payouts. One major difference between professional soccer and college football is that some of the EPL and Champions League money eventually finds its way to the players in the form of wages, but the principle is the same.
At least Wolves get a chance to test their mettle against their league’s top clubs this year; it is possible, as Leicester City showed, for a traditional outsider to catch lightning in a bottle. The CFP protects Power Five teams from the risk of such an indignity. UCF isn’t the first Group of Five or mid-major team to be denied its chance at a title—Boise State, TCU, Houston, and Hawaii have all been shut out of either the CFP or BCS title picture—and it won’t be the last until the Power Five schools start running the system the way they claim to be.
If UCF beats three-loss LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, the Knights ought to claim another national championship this season. And another next year, and every year until Bama stops ducking them.