UCF Proves College Football Playoff Still Has Its Flaws

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Getty UCF owns the nation's longest winning streak at 20 games.

The College Football Playoff has increased the sport’s popularity after we heard for decades that a postseason would be impossible. Many of these same gatekeepers want fans to believe that expanding the playoff would hurt college football and decrease the importance of the regular season. UCF sits at the center of the discussion, and the program has become the face of the Group of Five as the school is asking the power brokers to put some respect on their name.

To be clear, the playoff has been good for college football and has added casual fans who may only tune into the playoff matchups that close the season. What also has become clear is that an expanded playoff is the only way forward for the majority of college football fan bases to believe their program has a legitimate shot at a title when the beginning of the season starts. This is something that is central to the College Football Playoff tenants, but its practicality remains in question.

It is important to note that Group of Five and Power Five are economic terms that have more to do with the size of television contracts than they to do with football. You will not see either term used in the College Football Playoff criteria. On the contrary, the committee states there is “universal access” for every FBS team.

“Every FBS team has equal access to the College Football Playoff based on its performance. No team automatically qualifies,” the College Football Playoff site explains.

The G5 distinction is only formally used as a way to ensure the highest-ranked Group of Five team gets a spot in one of the New Year’s Six games. It is not used in top computer models that measure each team’s quality.

The adjectives started to gain more popularity in 2014 when the Power Five schools voted for autonomy, threatening to leave its little brothers behind. As a compromise, the Group of Five retained its “access bowl” spot, but in the process essentially lost a viable path to competing for the national title. For all of the BCS’s flaws, it provided a more realistic path for teams like UCF to have a chance at competing for a championship.

While we will not know how high UCF will be in the playoff rankings until tonight, history tells us the committee has tended to rank Group of Five teams lower than their peers. The committee does have two former Group of Five coaches along with former UCF athletic director Todd Stansbury, all of whom Knights fans are hoping will plead their case.

Critics of UCF have pointed to a weak strength of schedule and provided helpful advice for the Knights to follow if they want to be taken seriously. The only problem is the context for UCF and other Group of Five programs is rarely considered.

If you want to cite UCF’s schedule as a reason for disqualification from the College Football Playoff, it is important to at least know the context of this and other factors.

UCF Tried to Join the Big 12 Before the Conference Deleted Their eHarmony Profile

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GettyUCF taking on Texas back in 2009.

The Big 12 and UCF went on a few dates back in 2016. The conference also courted a few other schools including Memphis, USF and Houston. After months of dating, the Big 12 decided they were just fine with their current relationship status. More specifically, the conference opted to continue splitting their television revenue among 10 teams rather than expanding to 12.

The challenge for UCF and other schools looking to land in a Power Five conference is there does not appear to be another opportunity on the horizon. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg wrote a detailed piece explaining why the topic of realignment may not be revisited again until 2023.

Why 2023? It starts with expiring TV contracts. The ACC and SEC both have long-term media grant-of-rights agreements, running through 2035-36 and 2033-34, respectively. But the other three Power 5 conferences have agreements ending roughly around the same time (the SEC’s Tier 1 deal with CBS runs through 2023-24). The Big Ten last summer opted for a shorter agreement with Fox and ESPN, which runs through 2022-23. The Pac-12 deal expires after the 2023-24 sports year, and the Big 12’s ends the following year.

While UCF’s schedule may be flawed, the Knights rank third in the country in margin of victory as UCF’s average win is by 24.3 points. UCF has the No. 5 ranked offense in the country scoring 45.5 points per game.

The Secret for UCF & Other Group of Five Team’s Schedules Is to Possess a Crystal Ball

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GettyUCF playing on the road against Michigan in 2016.

Here’s the thing about schedules, they are done years in advance. Teams like UCF can’t just sign up to play Clemson, Alabama or other top programs like the old NCAA video game. It does not work like a round of speed dating where 130 college football teams sit in a room to iron out each team’s schedule.

UCF scheduled this season’s game against North Carolina in 2016 when the Tar Heels were coming off an ACC championship appearance and an 11-3 season. Just like Alabama scheduled Louisville when it was believed to be two top 25 teams squaring off.

North Carolina has fallen off since then, and the game was eventually canceled right before Hurrican Florence came through the state. It marked the second straight season where UCF had to cancel a game against a Power Five opponent because of a hurricane. In the last five years, UCF has scheduled Penn State (twice), South Carolina (twice), Missouri, Stanford, Michigan, Maryland (twice), Georgia Tech (twice), Pitt and North Carolina.

Power Five schools are also known for canceling upcoming games. UCF was scheduled to play Texas in 2017 until the school pushed the game back to 2023. Earlier this year, the game was canceled altogether.

Since 2010, UCF has wins over Auburn, Baylor, Georgia, Boston College, Penn State, BYU, Maryland and Pitt. The Knights have won both of their New Year’s Six appearances (Fiesta and Peach).

For decades, UCF has a history of playing Power Five teams on the road dating back to the Daunte Culpepper years. UCF has played at Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Penn State and Wisconsin just to name a few.

UCF is trying to score home-and-home matchups because the home game revenue means a lot more to Group of Five teams than it does to those in bigger conferences getting a cut of massive television contracts. Similar to what Boise State did in their prime years, UCF would be wise to ditch games like SC State in favor of an opening weekend neutral site matchup against a marquee opponent.

Whatever money may be lost would be gained back by the exposure brought to the program as the school has seen from games like the Peach Bowl. For all we know UCF is trying to do just that, but have not been able to find a willing partner.

There is good reason for Power Five schools not to play UCF. A win is seen as an afterthought against a Group of Five school, while a loss would severely ding the team’s playoff chances. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly breaks down why strength of schedule is hard to measure in college football.

Strength of schedule is at the heart of virtually every argument between October and January. Hell, it’s a point of debate for every college sport. The schedules are too varied and not comprehensive enough.

At the pro level, there are strong and weak divisions, but schedules are infinitely more balanced. In the MLB, everybody plays everybody in their league at least a few times, with some cross-league games. In the NBA and NHL, everybody plays everybody at least once.

With 130 FBS teams and 12 games, that isn’t an option for college football. So we play who we play, and we yell about whom our rivals ain’t played…

It is decreed that the committee takes strength of schedule into account, but it doesn’t say how. It frowns on advanced analytics and gives no alternative guidance. So the committee goes with things like “wins over top-25 teams” and “assuring there’s no way in hell a team from a Group of 5 conference will get in.”

Whenever someone asks how UCF would hold up if they switched schedules with Alabama, an equal question would be how an SEC team would perform with UCF’s athletic budget. UCF likely would gladly make the trade if it tripled their budget.

Alabama Made Almost as Much Money From Media Rights as UCF’s Entire Athletic Budget

What is rarely mentioned is the difference in athletic budgets in the Power Five and Group of Five. According to AL.com, Alabama made $43.9 million from their cut of the media rights deals in 2017-18. USA Today ranked Auburn as the No. 10 team in revenue brought in at $147.5 million, well over UCF’s 56th ranked $56.3 million.

It is true that UCF’s current schedule does not have some of the rigors of other conferences, but the Knights have also been able to compete against teams with double to triple their amount of revenue.

With the exception of Alabama, every team has their warts. Notre Dame needed a late touchdown to defeat a Pitt team that UCF beat by 31 points. Clemson trailed Syracuse heading into the fourth quarter. Texas lost to Maryland to open the season. Teams in Power Five conferences are often given free passes for off weeks, because of how hard it is to win in college football. Yet, UCF has won 20 straight games, and the team is being dismissed largely because they play in the AAC.

Here’s how the initial playoff rankings stack up if we compare the budgets of the top 12 teams. The data comes from the 2016-17 fiscal year courtesy of the USA Today and Business Insider.

1. Alabama $174,307,419
2. Clemson $112,600,964
3. LSU $147,744,233
4. Notre Dame $134,200,000
5. Michigan $185,173,187
6. Georgia $157,852,479
7. Oklahoma $155,238,481
8. Washington State $64,294,520
9. Kentucky $130,706,744
10. Ohio State $185,409,602
11. Florida $149,165,475
12. UCF $56,327,225

This is one of the main reasons the AAC has become a feeder system for major programs to poach head coaches. Not only can Power Five schools triple the coach’s salary, but they can also provide sizable raises to his current staff. These schools have budgets that also allow the coach to expand his staff.

TCU Was Told It Could Not Compete in a Major Conference Then the Horned Frogs Won the Big 12

boise state, tcu, ucf, nebraska, scott frost

GettyBoth Boise State and TCU almost broke through the BCS system in 2009.

TCU was once deemed too inferior to be able to withstand the rigors of a Power Five schedule. The Horned Frogs played their first season in the Big 12 in 2012 after previously playing in the Mountain West. TCU won the conference in just its third season in the Big 12.

Boise State and TCU were once on equal footing, but unfortunately, the Broncos are farther away now from competing for a national title than they were in the BCS era. TCU is regularly in the playoff discussion thanks to their newfound conference standing.

One of the biggest fallacies is considering all Power Five teams as superior to the entire Group of Five. A win against Memphis, Temple or USF should not be treated as lesser than if a Group of Five team was to play bottom dwellers like Kansas or Wake Forest. The latest edition of the S&P+ has the ACC and AAC with the same number of top 50 teams (6).

Every conference has their bad teams, but separating wins into P5 or G5 does not paint a picture of an opponent’s strength. It just tells you what patch was on the jersey of the team they played.

Notre Dame Could Provide a Tipping Point for Change

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Notre Dame could help playoff expansion talks heat up.

UCF fans are no doubt part of #TeamChaos, but the Knights face an uphill battle if they start low in the initial playoff rankings. Last season, the committee began ranking three-loss teams ahead of UCF, and if that continues this season UCF has little chance to make a major climb.

UCF’s schedule will improve with their toughest opponents coming in November, but so do the schedules for the majority of top teams this season. Notre Dame making the College Football Playoff would garner the attention of conference commissioners across the country.

It would mean at least two Power Five conferences would be left out of the postseason. This number could grow if the committee opts to add two teams from the same conference. The quickest way for change to happen is for a number of major conferences to be negatively impacted in a tangible way.

College Football Playoff Expansion Would Lengthen the Footprint of the Sport Across the Country

Some of the critiques range from harmless like ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit suggestion that UCF is comparable to Fresno State and Appalachian State, to hateful as Fox Sports’ Joe Klatt claimed UCF wanted a welfare handout. The challenge for UCF and Group of Five schools is the target is always moving.

A team like Clemson gets a pass for a weaker schedule because they pass the “eye test”, but UCF is dismissed on whatever factor a detractor chooses to cite even if these same factors also apply to Power Five schools.

The question the sport must answer is whether they want the games to be decided simply by what people think would happen, or if they want titles determined by teams playing against each other. When Purdue throttles Ohio State it proves our own expectations are not always accurate.

A playoff expansion towards eight teams with the Power Five conference winners, highest-ranked Group of Five team and two at-large spots is a move that involves more fan bases. Instead of just a handful of teams playing meaningful games during the final few weeks, you would have double the amount of fan bases invested in the stretch run. This makes the regular season more important for more teams, not less important.

College basketball is the best comparison as the majority of teams from smaller conferences fall away by the first weekend. When a deserving team like Butler or Loyola Chicago proves they can play with anyone in the country, they do just that. If the top Group of Five team is so inferior as some suggest, they will lose allowing the rightful champion to be crowned. The argument should not be about whether you and I believe UCF can compete against other top teams.

If it turns out that these teams are able to compete against the top Power Five teams then it would be the College Football Playoff living up to its own criteria. Demanding equal access is not a handout, it is simply asking college football to live up to the ideals the sport has laid out in its mission statement.

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