I cover international hockey on occasion, and the most time-honored knock on the format is the single-game elimination scenario. Why potentially crown a champion by means of a few lucky bounces over 60 minutes?
The criticism overlooks that an IIHF or Olympic tournament is designed to determine the best team. Not necessarily the best match-up for a single 60:00 against so-and-so. But rather the most consistent, dynamic, resilient team over a span of time. Gold medalists at the Olympic Games must overcome an obstacle course. They will skate against countries with more power or more finesse or a superior goaltender. The coaching staff will be tested. And at some point, a key player will suffer an injury.
College Football Playoff committee members may or may not view their selection process in those terms. But the FBS regular season is set up like an obstacle course for those hoping to play in January. One slip-up can be enough to dash national title hopes.
Michigan’s run for the grail came to a crashing halt on Championship Weekend. Georgia’s double-digit loss at LSU, not the Dawgs’ 7-point loss to Alabama, is what kept UGA out of the playoff this time. Ohio State’s hapless effort vs Purdue sank the Scarlet & Gray and helped Notre Dame get in.
The CFP is looking at the floors each program’s resume, not just ceilings. When Oklahoma, Clemson, Alabama or Notre Dame hit their floors in 2018, they were still standing on higher ground than other contenders. Getting blown-out by a lesser rival is black juju with the committee. Hit that low of a floor, and you’ll be ranked right out of the running.
Unless you’re ahead of UCF, the gridiron gang that only ever loses in a boardroom.
Floor? How about a Top 10 team that has no floor, a team that just keeps winning, and winning, and dominating, and winning again no matter what happens to them, 25 flippin’ times in a row?
If consistency and perseverance really are the selection committee’s biggest benchmarks, then the exclusion of the University of Central Florida Knights from the 2018-19 playoff is a crime.
UCF is the most resilient program in college football. There is no doubt about it. Former head coach Scott Frost left for his alma mater Nebraska after leading the Knights to a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. It didn’t matter. 25 wins in a row is merely where the conversation begins.
Of college football’s elite teams, Central Florida was perhaps the thinnest at QB in 2018. (Clemson is a close #2 following the departure of Kelly Bryant).. The week before the AAC Championship Game, QB McKenzie Milton suffered a career-threatening injury that could have sent any program into a tailspin.
Tailspin? The most resilient team in college football doesn’t do tailspins. Out of nowhere, out of nothing, the UCF Knights put on a clinic at Spectrum Stadium, out-scoring the Memphis Tigers 35-3 in the 2nd half. QB Darnell Mack Jr., an unheralded frosh project who had looked spooky-ordinary in very limited action, passed for 358 yards and scored 6 – as in half of a dozen – combined TDs after an icy-cold start. Visiting star tailback Darrell Henderson was held to (gulp) 3 yards on 6 carries after halftime.
Memphis would be a mid-tier contender in the Power 5, nothing more. But pundits who are backhand-waving the AAC title scrum as a nice win for a nice mid-major are either not paying attention or willfully blind. The hosts proved much more than that.
Imagine that Trevor Lawrence is injured late in the 2019 season. Through freaks of luck, all Dabo Swinney has to replace him is an underclassman worm-burner, who goes 5-of-14 in an emergency trial-run. Boston College visits for a decisive battle. Or maybe Pitt or Syracuse, 2 mid-tier contenders whom Clemson has had all kinds of problems with in the recent past. The game goes badly. The QB struggles just to grip the pigskin.
And then like Minerva springing into the world, Clemson puts it together. A dead-in-the-water deficit is erased like clockwork. The defense is other-worldly while stopping an NFL running back. The newbie signal-caller plays like a veteran phenom. The Tigers score almost effortlessly, again and again and again.
Now, does that feel like a team that deserves the College Football Playoff? And does the CFP deserve that kind of football? Yes, and yes.
UCF’s defense held Pitt’s heralded backfield to 3.3 yards a carry in a 45-14 domination, arguably worse than the licking Clemson put on the Panthers last weekend. Central Florida’s offense is a magnificent machine that can’t be throttled for more than a quarter at a time. The Knights stomped Lane Kiffin’s cherry-picked charges at FAU, beat Cincinnati to a pulp.
Coaches try all sorts of alchemy hoping to build a Power-5 roster at a mid-major. Talented new UCF skipper Josh Heupel gets the bang, recruiting in a prep football hotbed of such epic proportions that Florida and FSU and Miami couldn’t snatch all of the best kids if they tried. It would take 500 scholarships a year, and a whole lot of luck. UCF blocks, tackles, runs and passes like an ACC powerhouse.
.@UCF_Football head coach Josh Heupel on the show right now.
— Jim Rome (@jimrome) December 4, 2018
Not to overlook the strength-of-schedule discrepancy faced by schools like Alabama and Clemson. Above all, undefeated teams from Power-5 conferences deserve to be in the College Football Playoff. And UCF’s commanding win over Auburn shouldn’t count toward this season’s CFP bracket.
My argument isn’t that Group of 5 schools belong in the playoff, it’s that the American Athletic Conference is no longer a Group of 5 league. In 2016, the AAC’s Houston Cougars knocked Oklahoma and Louisville out of the top 5, out-scoring those teams a combined 69-33. Houston finished in a tie for 3rd in its division. Navy beat Houston (and Notre Dame) that year, underscoring the fact that the AAC is deeper than the Big 12 or even (dare we say) the SEC in some campaigns.
Don’t point to Memphis’ pitiful October loss to Missouri as an example of disparity between the P5 and the AAC. Henderson was injured that weekend, touching the ball only 4 times. How might Mizzou have looked that Saturday if Drew Lock, Missouri’s most important player, tossed 4 passes and called it a day?
This season, Houston lost to Texas Tech in an epic shoot-out, and beat Arizona 45-18. (Memphis later sailed past Houston 52-31.) Tulsa gave Texas a very hard time, and a terrible Navy squad scored 22 points on Notre Dame. The AAC is 4-2 in its last 6 bowl games vs the Power 5.
If UCF rightfully took a spot in the CFP, who would the Knights replace? You can make a case for UCF > Oklahoma, or possibly UCF > UND. But if the Knights were ranked 5th or 6th by the committee and fans received a long, fair-ish explanation for the team’s exclusion from the dance, that would be called a controversy.
The CFP committee’s #8 placement of UCF is beyond a controversy. It’s a sham, a joke, an insult to our intelligence. Ohio State is ranked ahead of UCF. Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes lost 49-20 at Purdue on October 20th. I can say with complete confidence that UCF could play a 5-game series at Purdue, starting tomorrow, and the Knights would not once be in danger of losing 49-20.
But Ohio State clobbered Michigan, right? Poor old Wolverines, book-ending a whole season with lackluster losing efforts.
Oh yeah, by the way…Michigan is also ranked ahead of UCF.
The University of Central Florida Knights will play the LSU Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl on a bright, shiny New Year’s Day in Phoenix, looking to extend a winning streak that could conceivably last into another decade.
UCF has opened as a (+7.5) underdog. Many SEC partisans will bet against them anyway.
But I won’t. Good Knight, no way. I’m a believer now, watching a team without a floor just keep on flying.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.