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The Significance of UCF’s Quest to Repeat As National Champions

Last season, the Knights went 13-0 and claimed a national title. This season, a similar UCF run could end differently—or reveal systematic flaws in the College Football Playoff system.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

UCF won a national championship in 2017. You can find the evidence on Page 115 of the 2018 edition of the official FBS record book. The book notes that “beginning in 2014, the College Football Playoff was used to determine national champions,” and goes on to clarify that if a “major selector” chose a school other than the one that won the CFP, that team would also be listed alongside the commonly accepted champion. In 2017, the Colley Matrix—a computer ranking that was used in the BCS era to help determine national champions, and is still considered a “major selector” by the NCAA—named undefeated UCF as its national champ.

The NCAA’s official acknowledgment that UCF won a national title received significantly less attention than UCF’s own claim. The primary outlet was a Twitter campaign by the school and its fans, though the effort didn’t stop there. The team also got a parade, the players got rings, and the stadium got a banner. The school even backed up its claim with cash, paying assistant coaches national-championship bonuses as promised in their contracts.

At its core, this was merely self-promotion. UCF had a feasible title claim—it went 13-0 last season and beat Auburn, the only team to take down College Football Playoff champion Alabama, in the Peach Bowl. It also continued the college football tradition of massively overhyping one’s accomplishments—there is an award for the best center in college football; the people who give out the award create a preseason watch list of more than 50 players who might win it; and I’m pretty sure all 50-plus schools create and promote dramatic graphics for their maybe-good centers—and ruffling feathers. Alabama coach Nick Saban took a rare public stance by mentioning that UCF’s claim was a figment of a lesser team’s imagination; Paul Finebaum, the human manifestation of the SEC, repeatedly decried the Knights’ claims. But many schools in UCF’s shoes would have done the same thing—in fact, dozens have previously claimed dubious national titles, with the most prominent and frequent offender being Alabama.

Lost in all the commotion was a side effect of UCF’s attention-grabbing. The College Football Playoff has been the most popular, profitable, and legitimate method of naming a national champion the sport has ever had—and UCF launched the firmest and most public criticism of it to date. No school had claimed a national championship without winning a sanctioned national title game since 2003, more than a decade before the introduction of the playoff. As the first school outside a power conference to claim a national championship in years, UCF called into question whether the system is prejudiced against teams like the Knights.

Now that those three letters have been printed in the FBS record book, a hairline fracture has appeared on the previously perfect veneer that college football had fixed its champion-crowning process. It’s also set the stage for UCF to repeat—whatever that means.

UCF’s national championship happened because of Scott Frost. In 2015, the Knights went 0-12, finishing 126th out of 128 FBS teams in scoring offense. In 2016, Frost took over as head coach and went 6-7. In 2017, the Knights went 13-0 and finished first in the nation in scoring offense. We call it a turnaround when a coach takes a team from 4-8 to 8-4; Frost went from zero-to-100 in two years flat. (That’s not a car metaphor; the Knights won zero percent of their games in 2015, then 100 percent in 2017.)

And yet, by May, the man responsible for UCF’s national-title claim was downplaying it. “The playoff system is that the national champion is the team that wins the playoff,” Frost told USA Today. “I kind of wish my ring just said ‘Undefeated Season.’”

Why the change of heart? Because Frost left UCF to take his dream job at Nebraska, his alma mater. UCF is in the American Athletic Conference; Nebraska is in the Big Ten. The Big Ten is a Power 5 conference, meaning that it’s one of the five leagues that control the College Football Playoff. The American is in one of the other FBS leagues, the group assigned to share a single bowl berth in the CFP-controlled New Year’s Six. AAC ad campaigns have attempted to portray the conference as a member of the “Power 6,” but nobody believes the “Power 6” is a thing.

The CFP touts itself as a championship system for all schools, but in its four years of existence, the selection committee’s rankings have yet to place any team from a non–power conference in the top 10. That includes UCF, which even after going 12-0 and winning a conference championship was slotted 12th in last year’s final rankings. This is by design: The CFP is organized by the power conferences. Of the 13 spots on the playoff selection committee, 10 are held by people who’ve either worked or played for power-conference schools. The setup also pays power conferences handsomely. In 2016, each Power 5 league individually made at least $88 million from the playoff; the other conferences combined to share $83 million. The playoff promotes the premise of inclusion, but is systematically biased to exclude certain teams.

Meanwhile, since the playoff was installed in 2014, non-power-conference teams have gone 3-1 against power-conference foes in New Year’s Six bowl matchups. (Boise State beat Arizona in 2014; Houston beat Florida State in 2015; and UCF beat Auburn last year.) The best non-power-conference teams have proved capable of beating the best power-conference teams, and yet it’s clear that the playoff committee pays this no mind. It’s repeatedly ranked non–Power 5 teams lower than they should be.

However, of the non-power-conference teams to finish a season undefeated and knock off a power-conference team in a New Year’s Six bowl, UCF was the first to claim that its perfect, snubbed season was worthy of a national title. And while Frost says he would have had “a hard time getting behind” the 2017 national-championship promotion had he stayed on at UCF, that seems easy to remark in retrospect, now that Frost coaches a school that almost certainly would make the playoff if it were to go unbeaten. UCF’s national-title claim calls into question the legitimacy of a process that guarantees schools like Nebraska a chance at the championship.

There is an odd prevailing sentiment among those who felt UCF didn’t deserve a playoff berth after its undefeated season. This contingent feels that if UCF were to go undefeated again in 2018, the Knights would deserve a shot at the national championship. Even Finebaum said as much.

This seems like BS. A national championship is a culmination of a single college football season, and past (or future) seasons shouldn’t be part of the equation. No team in any league has gone undefeated in back-to-back years since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995. That’s because completing an undefeated season is really, really difficult, no matter the competition. Power 5 schools aren’t expected to string together several excellent years to garner consideration for the playoff—so why should the little guys? This is an unrealistic standard that makes it look like the people who have a vested interest in keeping the little guys down are being fair.

This is the standard college football has accepted. I think it stems from the sport’s history of releasing weekly rankings. The no. 1 team in the polls has never been determined by an organic evaluation; rather, it’s decided by an anchoring-and-adjustment exercise based off the previous week’s rankings. (If your team is ranked no. 1 and doesn’t lose, it will probably be ranked no. 1 in the next rankings. If the no. 1 team loses, the no. 2 team will probably ascend to no. 1.) This means preseason rankings, to a certain extent, impact which teams can win the national title. At the beginning of last season, UCF was unranked, and never rose high enough to come near the playoff picture. This fall, however, UCF opens the season ranked no. 21 in the AP poll.

This one time, I will allow this line of thinking. Because UCF happens to be set up to do as well this season as it did in 2017. The offense returns most of its key starters, including quarterback McKenzie Milton. Some consider Milton to be a Heisman Trophy candidate after his incredible sophomore season, in which he tallied more than 4,600 total yards and passed for 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The defense loses its best player, one-handed wonder Shaquem Griffin, but UCF won games 49-42 and 62-55 last fall. This team isn’t about defense.

Frost is gone, but he’s been replaced by a coach who could keep the offense rolling: Josh Heupel, an Air Raid disciple who recently helped spearhead a Frost-y turnaround as Missouri’s offensive coordinator, taking the Tigers from 127th to 14th in scoring offense in two years. And the Knights’ 2018 schedule looks much like last year’s. UCF plays two beatable ACC teams, North Carolina and Pittsburgh, and otherwise has an AAC schedule in which it’ll be favored in every game.

Nobody was talking about UCF at the beginning of last season. But this year, the Knights are a known commodity. If they go undefeated again, the selection committee will have to make a choice: Include UCF or make plain that the system is tilted against the little guys. One unbeaten season from a team with a weak schedule could conceivably be omitted. Even the shilliest power-conference shills admit it would be fishy for two straight spectacular seasons to be excluded.

UCF has a chance to repeat. Maybe “repeat” means doing exactly what it did last year: going undefeated, getting left out of the playoff, and creating a huge ruckus. If this were to happen, the playoff committee would lose the perception of fairness, and calls for legitimate playoff reform would grow louder than ever.

Or maybe UCF’s claimed national championship will bring it enough attention to enter the fray for a more widely recognized championship. I’m sure that’s the type of repeat the school would prefer.