The College Football Playoff bracket was set yesterday—pitting Alabama against Oklahoma and Clemson against Notre Dame—and for the second year in a row, the undefeated UCF Knights are nowhere to be found. Just as they had to settle for the Peach Bowl against Auburn last season, UCF will play LSU, another three-loss SEC team, in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. If the NCAA hadn’t made it clear already, it’s obvious now: UCF—or any program like it—will never be allowed to compete for the national title in its current form. It’s certainly not an unexpected development, but it’s still a disappointment, particularly for any UCF players who’ve been along for the whole ride, from a winless 2015 to now.
“We’d like to be somewhere else, but we’re excited for another opportunity to play the game,” offensive tackle Wyatt Miller said.
When asked where they would like to be, all Miller said was, “I think you know the answer to that one. We’ll just leave that one unsaid.”
There is literally nothing else UCF could have done do improve their chances. The Knights are 25-0 since the beginning of the 2017 season, with a host of solid-but-not-spectacular wins against teams like Maryland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati (twice), Temple (twice), South Florida (twice), and Memphis (four times)—plus that huge win over Auburn at the end of last season. Unfortunately, the strength of that 2018 schedule—104th in the country—keeps them stuck all the way down at number eight in the CFP rankings.
In the NCAA’s eyes, this is a feature, not a bug of the system. The CFP’s objective is not actually to crown a “true” national champion or whatever it is they’ve been claiming to do since it was the BCS. The goal is, no shit, to make money, and Oklahoma—the number-four ranked team that brings in over twice the attendance to its home games that UCF does—achieves that goal much more easily. Even if UCF wanted to play the NCAA’s game and schedule an extremely difficult schedule, it’s not even clear how they would go about doing that, since established schools only play one non-cupcake out-of-conference game per year. Programs like to reserve those games for a match-up with a big-name school that will sell tickets, and it’s unlikely that any true powerhouse would want to play an even-footing home-and-home series against UCF. “I haven’t gotten any phone calls, I’ll admit to you,” said UCF executive associate AD David Hansen after the Knights’ first undefeated season.
But even for football-only reasons, in any individual year, it’s pretty easy to deny a playoff bid to an undefeated or one-loss team outside a power conference. To the vast majority of the country, they are always flukey surprises, big fish in small waters who just manage to string together a strong streak of wins in unseen games against inferior competition. 2016's Western Michigan Broncos, who went 13-0 in the main part of their schedule, certainly didn’t look worthy of a playoff spot following their Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin.
But this year could have been different. Put aside for a second the fact of McKenzie Milton’s injury—it’s not like a late-season injury to Alabama’s Heisman candidate quarterback would hurt the undefeated Tide’s ability to make the playoffs—and just look at what UCF has done. Yes, they’ve been perfect for two years, and very few of their regular season games have even been close, but most important of all is that Auburn win 11 months ago—34-27 against a team that beat the eventual national champions. The most compelling argument against putting a Group of Five team in the playoff is that they haven’t yet proven what they can actually do against the big boys. UCF has already shown they can make something crazy and memorable happen in such a scenario, and they deserve to take another crack at it on an even bigger scale. Another strong argument against the Knights last season—“Who would they even replace?”—doesn’t hold weight this time around, since there are four undefeated teams in college football, and three of them are already in.
So if not now, when? Well, never, of course, at least not until UCF becomes a part of the machine they’re currently fighting against and joins the ACC or something. Meanwhile, we’re left pretending like we can get excited about Oklahoma’s matchup with Alabama. Early lines for the game gave the Sooners as two-touchdown underdogs against Alabama. Would replacing them with UCF really be that much worse?