UCF National Champions: The Case for a Split College Football Title

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Getty UCF has started their write-in campaign for a 2017 national championship.

Remember when the Big 12 launched its “One True Champion” campaign only to award a split conference title to Baylor and TCU in 2015? The College Football Playoff could be headed to a similar fate after promising to provide clarity to a murky BCS system.

UCF is now poking the bear of the college football establishment by starting a national championship campaign. The school plans to treat this season as if they won the title with rings, parades, shirts and even changed their Twitter handle to “2017 National Champions.” Before you dismiss their troll game, you would be wise to consider the case for UCF as the people’s champion.

UCF marched into the heart of SEC country, and defeated Auburn, the only team to beat the two teams playing in the national championship game. The common critique of UCF has been their schedule. The Knights defeated three ten-win teams a total of four times with UCF defeating Memphis twice. While it’s true UCF does not have the most imposing strength of schedule (ranked 72nd in Sagarin), it does not tell the whole story.

UCF had Georgia Tech on the schedule, a team with the No. 16 ranked schedule, but the matchup was cancelled because of Hurricane Irma. While far from a guarantee, it would have been a winnable game for UCF, and bumped up their strength of schedule. With the impact of Hurricane Irma, UCF played 11 straight games without a bye week.

The challenge is there does not seem to be a sliding scale when evaluating strength of schedule. Just as the committee is able to factor in things like injuries to key players when looking at results, each team’s schedule should be evaluated based on circumstances. Alabama has the No. 47 ranked schedule which shows the committee understands strength of schedule is a metric to consider, but not the metric to consider. Otherwise, let’s hand Maryland the national championship trophy for having the most difficult schedule in the country. For all the talk of Group of Five teams needing to “schedule up” to be a true national championship contender, what brand-name school wants to schedule a team like UCF? If Alabama schedules UCF to open their season, they do not get any bonus points for a win, while a loss would put the rest of their season in serious jeopardy.

Detractors can continue to dismiss UCF because of their schedule, but the majority of Power Five teams would struggle to accomplish what the Knights did this season if given UCF’s budget. UCF faces a unique opportunity to become the perfect candidate to be the anti-establishment team of college football. For all the fans of blue-blooded institutions, there are just as many people who spent their college days tailgating on Saturdays everywhere from Topeka to Toledo who want to feel their football team matters too.

The name on the front of the jersey should always matter more than the conference patch on the sleeve. As a college football fan, ask yourself if you are comfortable with a system where the pathway to a championship is based on an archaic conference structure often formed decades before the players on the field were born.

Over the off-season, UCF can position itself as the Chance the Rapper of college football. There was a time when to be one of the best rappers in the game, you worked your whole life for a chance to get signed to a major label. Chance and many other artists have shown that now the market gets to decide if you have what it takes thanks to the internet.

If I am new UCF head coach Josh Heupel, I’m finding the biggest 1980’s stereo system around, and going to conference board rooms across the country with Drake’s “Big Rings” on repeat.

Man what a time to be alive
You and yours
vs. Me and mine
Are we talkin’ teams?…
And I got a really big team
And they need some really big rings

With the country’s attention for this short period of time, Heupel’s message should be simple, “UCF will take on any team, any place and any time.” While the circumstances are different in college basketball, this philosophy has worked well for Wichita State’s head coach Gregg Marshall as the Shockers have finally moved into a bigger conference. Here’s the funny thing about schedules. You can only play the games that are on it, and the teams that are willing to play you.

UCF and other Group of Five teams can continue to complain that no major label will sign them, or they can change the game by creating their own label.

That Time Alabama Declared Itself National Champions

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GettyLong before Nick Saban, there was a season where Alabama declared itself national champions.

Thanks to a recent history lesson by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, let’s take a look at the 1941 national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Prior to the 1950’s, college football had 16 different selectors including the Houlgate System who declared Alabama national champs.

Roll Bama Roll provides a bit of context about the Houlgate System.

In 1941, Houlgate was the oldest remaining recognized system for crowning National Champions. It began in 1927, and was highly regarded for its systematic approach to finding out who the best team in the nation was. In fact, it was the only system at the time that took strength of schedule into account, and which we’ll find out later, may have played a large roll in its final selection. The AP poll was in its infancy, 5 years old to be exact, while Houlgate was on its 14th year of service. You can essentially compare this to the AP poll versus BCS debate…

No sport can survive if teams are able to simply declare themselves champions. Is UCF declaring itself national champions a gimmick? Sure, but it’s a smart gimmick that the program should stretch through the off-season. When you say out loud what UCF has accomplished, it seems less outlandish than you may have originally thought.

The Knights are the only undefeated team in the country. UCF defeated Auburn, the only team to have wins over both championship game teams. They did all this in the midst of rumors their coach was leaving, then defeated Auburn after their coach had already left. UCF was the most consistent team in college football despite a hurricane derailing their schedule and bye week. For all the reasons fans can cite as to why UCF should not be in the College Football Playoff, UCF could have cited any number of excuses to justify a loss, except they did not need to.

How UCF Could Earn a Split National Championship

“You can’t argue 13-0. I guess you can go ahead and cancel the playoff now,” UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton told ESPN in a drop the mic moment after the Peach Bowl.

Beyond wanting to push the conversation forward, UCF is hoping their campaign over the next week can be enough to earn a split national championship. This could be the first year we have any sort of controversy when a champion is crowned in the College Football Playoff.

While we have not seen this in the sport’s current format, split titles are nothing new to college football. UCF athletic director Danny White did his best to campaign for UCF to get a share of the trophy on ESPN’s Dan Le Batard Show (via CBS Sports).

Hopefully, in the coming days, a lot more people will become believers as well. We feel like we’re deserving of a national championship. By our research, there’s been 36 different years where there have been multiple champions crowned in college football. There’s been years where there were three or four champions crowned. … There’s going to be a CFP champion, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not a national champion.

Without turning this into a lengthy fact-checking mission for all 36 split titles, there has been recent instances of a split championship. Most recently we saw a split title in 2003 during the BCS era as LSU defeated Oklahoma for the BCS title, while USC was voted No. 1 in the AP Poll.

Prior to that, Scott Frost was once again at the center of a split title discussion, but this time as Nebraska quarterback during the 2007 season. Saturday Down South detailed the split championship between Nebraska and Michigan.

No. 1 Michigan (11-0), with Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, was heavily favored against Washington State, but didn’t live up to lofty expectations while [pulling] out a 23-16 victory.

So the Wolverines were No. 1, correct?

Well, not exactly. At the Orange Bowl, undefeated Nebraska had a much better showing against No. 3 Tennessee, handily winning 42-17.

No major college football team had gone 13-0 and not been declared the national champion, but no No. 1 team had ever won its bowl game and been dropped by voters either. The writers’ poll wasn’t close, Michigan was the clear choice, while with Tom Osborne retiring Nebraska won the coaches’ poll by a mere two points.

UCF’s ideal scenario would be for an ugly title game between Alabama and Georgia. This combined with the Knights perfect season could be enough to pick up No. 1 votes from AP voters. They would need to gain a majority of the No. 1 votes in the AP Poll, something that seems far-fetched.

A more likely scenario is how 2008 played out. Florida defeated Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship. However, Utah went 13-0 including dominating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and the Utes perfect season caused 16 AP voters to select Utah as their No. 1 team. The 12-1 Gators were still voted the No. 1 team in the final AP Poll with 48 first place votes, but 25 percent of the voters thought more highly of Utah’s perfect season than the Gators’ BCS title.

Like Utah, UCF will end up with some first place votes, and it will be interesting to see just how many AP voters will want to vote contrarian. What has become clear from this season is Group of Five teams have no chance at winning a national title under the current system.

The Case for an 8-Team Playoff

It’s hard to argue UCF is better than Alabama or Georgia, but here is what we do know. A few days ago myself and many others thought a two-loss Auburn team was better than an undefeated UCF team. By kickoff of the Peach Bowl, the Tigers were nearly a two touchdown favorite in Vegas. UCF proved on the field they were the better team. We are reaching a point in the young infancy of the College Football Playoff where we must decide whether we want to base the championship race on what people think will happen, rather than having teams compete on the field to show what would happen.

The College Football Playoff has been great for the sport. In particular, it has drawn in the casual fan in December and January to see who will be crowned champion. The committee has also done a great job of creating compelling matchups in the other New Year’s Six games in what has become nearly a two week celebration of college football.

Some fans are reluctant to embrace an expanded playoff for fear it would water down the postseason, and make the regular season less important. Keep in mind five years ago we were told it would be impossible for college football to have a playoff. For all its innovative offenses and flashy uniforms, college football is like most of us, it is resistant to change. Whether this season is the tipping point to get the expansion discussion going remains to be seen.

In a potential eight-team playoff, five Power Five conference champions would get automatic bids along with the highest ranked Group of Five champion. This leaves two at-large bids based on the committee rankings. Here’s how this revised system would have played out this season.

1 Clemson
2 Oklahoma
3 Georgia
4 Alabama
7 Ohio State
8 Wisconsin

Some worry this would make the season even longer for student-athletes, but the regular season could be shortened to accomodate an expanded playoff. The money from the four additional playoff games could be split up among conferences to help compensate schools for the loss of home game revenue with the revised regular season schedule. Based on the above seeding, this is what the first round of this year’s playoff would have looked like.

No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 7 Ohio State
No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 6 UCF
No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 5 USC

It is difficult to look at these four matchups, and think it would do anything but increase interest in the sport. With the added teams with a potential postseason spot at stake, more fan bases have a vested interest in how the final weeks play out. This makes the entirety of the regular season important for more teams, not less.

There will be years when the Group of Five team does not perform well in an expanded playoff, but the group has a surprisingly good track record in marquee bowl games. According to the New Day Review, Group of Five teams are 8-3 in New Year’s Six bowl games against Power Five schools. Top ranked Clemson did not play well against Alabama in this season’s semifinal matchup, but no one would argue the Tigers did not deserve to make the College Football Playoff. An expanded field leaves less room for subjectivity with the championship tied more closely to how teams play on the field, and less to how we think they would hypothetically perform on the field.

With no sign the current system is going anywhere any time soon, UCF would be wise to frame its program as the anti-establishment candidate for college football fans. For now, print those shirts.

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