Ostensibly, Alabama and Georgia play for the championship of the Football Bowl Subdivision at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Monday night. Central Florida of the American Athletic Conference feels the title for the 2017 season already has been decided.
Among the collegiate power brokers, the Knights’ claim to the crown has about as much validity as a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.
But at 13-0 for the season with a 34-27 win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl, UCF can make a solid case. Alabama lost to the Tigers. So did Georgia before avenging the defeat in the Southeastern Conference championship.
The Knights definitely come out ahead based on common opponent comparisons.
UCF athletic director Danny White has gone all-in on the concept. The Knights plan to hang a championship banner at Spectrum Stadium. A parade is in the works as well as national championship rings. The UCF coaching staff will reportedly receive appropriate bonuses even though many have assumed new duties at Nebraska.
“You can go ahead and cancel the playoffs,” said UCF junior quarterback McKenzie Milton after the Knights overcame a 20-13 second-half deficit on New Year’s Day. “I’m not changing my mind.”
The College Football Playoff was supposed to help put an end to such controversy, but what the Knights have done is reveal flaws — or an agenda — in the selection process.
UCF coach Scott Frost shared his perception on the CFP rankings, which left his unbeaten team, the only one in the FBS, ranked No. 12 after week 14.
“It wasn’t right,” said Frost, who had agreed to coach his alma mater, Nebraska, before the bowl game. “I was watching (the selection show) every week, the committee sitting in a room and deciding that this two-loss team must be better than UCF because UCF is in the American, or this three-loss team must be better than UCF.”
There were five two-loss teams (Ohio State, the USC Trojans, Penn State, Miami and Washington) ahead of the Knights in the last CFP rankings, as well as Auburn, which had three losses at the time.
“It looked like a conscious effort to me to make sure that they didn’t have a problem if they put us too high and a couple teams ahead of us lost,” Frost said. “And oh, no, now we have to put them in a playoff? But we just beat [Auburn] that beat two playoff teams and lost to another one (Clemson) by six points, and we beat them by seven.”
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Frost’s comments were published in an article on the ESPN website. The network is certainly a player in the process as it presents the playoffs on its platforms. It carries the weekly CFP ranking shows and helps shape opinion on who belongs in the brackets through numerous on-air panels.
The consensus of the pundits was that Alabama deserved inclusion as the No. 4 seed over fifth-ranked Ohio State although the Crimson Tide didn’t even win the West Division of the SEC while the Buckeyes were the champions of the Big Ten.
“The committee got it right,” seemed to be the ESPN company line.
The committee seemed to turn a blind eye to conference play which consumes college football from October to early December.
There are relative strengths to be considered among the conferences but the SEC West is 2-3 thus far in the postseason, not impressive. Maybe the Big Ten has had something to prove in the bowls, going 7-1.
Jeff Sagarin, who does computer rankings for USA Today, rated Alabama with a No. 47 strength of schedule and Ohio State at No. 12.
“Look at the body of work,” said Tide coach Nick Saban.
That presumably includes a 56-0 Alabama win over Mercer of the Football Championship Subdivision before the 26-14 loss to Auburn.
There was no question about the television ratings bonanza that an Alabama-Clemson matchup presented, a reprise of the 2016 CFP championship. Maybe the selection committee got it right from that standpoint. Maybe what’s good for ESPN is good for college football since the network has such an enormous financial commitment to the sport.
The Tide got to play significantly closer to home in its 24-6 CFP semifinal win, but Saban is more concerned about when games are played than where.
The Clemson offense looked as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs as a couple of third quarter interceptions left little doubt about the outcome.
But while Clemson was mauling Miami 38-3 for the ACC championship, the Tide was resting up and pulling for a Wisconsin loss in the Big Ten title game. That’s all part of the process as defined by the CFP selection committee this year.
But is that fair to Ohio State? Is that fair to other teams that won league titles? Is it fair to the Group of Five, who apparently have no chance to win it all?
It’s not fair to UCF, which took the step that Northern Illinois couldn’t take in 2012. The Knights also succeeded where Western Michigan failed in 2016.
The Huskies, unbeaten beforehand, lost 31-10 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl and Western Michigan’s aim for perfection was denied with a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
UCF had confidence and coaching. Knights back Adrian Killins Jr. said Auburn hadn’t seen speed like UCF possessed. That’s noteworthy because speed and other physical attributes are considered SEC staples.
Frost and staff stayed on to go for a perfect season after he had taken the Nebraska job, an inspiring show of loyalty, similar to what East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery displayed in helping Duke win the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl after he had accepted the post with the Pirates.
Frost took the Knights from 0-12 in 2015, the year before his arrival, to the remarkable success of 2017. The Pirates blasted that winless UCF edition 44-7 in Orlando.
Few will recognize the Knights as this season’s national champion but that doesn’t mean their success doesn’t have value outside their own purview.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco will certainly have an additional bargaining chip in negotiating the league’s next television contract. UCF’s season validated the AAC’s Power 6 marketing campaign.
A 63-21 loss to UCF in Orlando on Oct. 14 helped Montgomery realize that his own program has a need for more speed.
And maybe the powers that be will realize that the CFP needs an overhaul. A 16-team playoff would allow all the conference champions to compete as well as a handful of at-large teams. Playoff games could be contested in existing bowls.
Every other football framework from Division III to the NFL has a more-expanded bracket. No one has complained about the revenue since the NCAA Basketball Tournament has grown from 16 to 68 teams.
Maybe that will be the factor that allows the Power Five and television networks to let the CFP get bigger and fairer — more money.
It’s interesting to note that Alabama and Georgia are among the programs that have laid disputed claims to national championships well after the fact. The Tide has said it won the 1941 title, based on something called the Houlgate system when the Associated Press ranked Alabama No. 20 that year.
UCF has made its claim much faster and with more merit. Speed is certainly an asset for the Knights.