UCF Knights, 2017 National Champions: The Failure of the College Football Playoff

The University of Central Florida’s undefeated 2017 season and Western Michigan University’s undefeated 2016 season brought back memories of the golden Boise State years for some college football fans. In 2004, 2006, 2008, and again in 2009, Boise State won all of its games, but still did not get a chance to compete for a National Championship when the regular season was over. Other notable omissions from the National Championship chase during this era of college football were the 2008 Utah Utes and the 2010 Texas Christian Horned Frogs.

There is one major difference between UCF’s year and Western Michigan’s year, compared to all of the others listed, however: UCF and Western Michigan were failed by a playoff system designed to give them a chance.

The Bowl Championship Series, otherwise known as the BCS, existed from 1998 to 2013. Under the BCS system, polls and computer rankings came together to pit the two top-ranked teams against one another at the end of the season. It was No. 1 versus No. 2 for all of the marbles.

Under such a system, it was no surprise that teams like Boise State and Utah – undefeated squads from second-tier conferences – were left out of the National Championship. There simply was not enough room for these teams to be included, and everything was on the line for the one final game. Going undefeated is a rare event, but it is not an impossible feat. Since the BCS got underway, there have been about two teams per college football season (on average) that have finished the year undefeated, and the National Championship matchups from 1998 to 2013 generally reflected this. As an example, keeping out 2009’s Boise State team in favor of a matchup between an undefeated Texas juggernaut and an undefeated Alabama powerhouse was a no-brainer.

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Here’s the thing about being undefeated, though: When a team wins every game on its schedule, that team has done everything in its power to make a case for a chance at the National Championship. So, while Boise State watching the BCS final from the couch was expected under a system that only allowed two teams to play for the ultimate prize in the subdivision, one would be justified in asking how it was fair that the Broncos (and any other team in a non-power conference) were starting the season without any chance of coming out as the No. 1 team in their own subdivision, unless factors out of their control changed the game.

In 2014, the landscape shifted in a major way. The NCAA abolished the BCS system and replaced it with the College Football Playoff (CFP). From the start, the Playoff was supposed to be about access. Instead of the one-game, two-team final, it featured two semifinal games ahead of the final, where four teams would have the opportunity to play for the FBS’ highest honor – the National Championship. It was perfect: Enough teams would have a chance to compete for the title, but the postseason would not become so long that the unpaid players on the teams in the National Championship were playing a season with as many games as that of their well-paid counterparts in the National Football League (while pulling in similar revenues for the broadcast networks and administrators).

From the start, the organizers advertised the Playoff as one that would allow the championship to be decided “on the field,” with entrants able to come from anywhere, “regardless of their conference” according to this two-minute ESPN spot with a faux Rudy explaining the new system. Why would the guy mention the phrase “regardless of their conference” if he was not talking about Group of 5 conferences? Each of the Power 5 won at least one BCS title in the period of time between 1998 and 2013.

Another commercial from 2014, entitled “Who’s In?”, features fans from a slew of teams talking about how they could make it into the CFP under the new system. Included in those teams are: Boise State, Northern Illinois, Cincinnati, Hawaii, East Carolina, Navy, Idaho, Tulane, San Jose State, Ball State, Wyoming, Southern Miss, Toledo, and…UCF!

It would therefore be consistent with the marketing of the CFP that if any of the above teams (or similar teams) went undefeated, they would be in. Early on in the administration of the CFP, this consistency was not tested.

Before 2016, the most “controversial” selection came in 2014, when one-loss Baylor and one-loss TCU were disappointed as a one-loss Ohio State team made the CFP over each of them. Many college football fans, however, were happy that the debate was about which one-loss team was worthy of the No. 4 spot, instead of which undefeated team would have to sit out the National Championship.

This is where things get tricky, however. By 2016, the CFP had dropped any pretense of accessibility for Group of 5 teams in its marketing, using only fans of Power 5 teams in its “Road to the Playoff” ad to kick off the season. Naturally, in 2016 and 2017, the CFP faced the challenge of whether or not it would stay true to its 2014 marketing campaign, and it failed miserably. The Western Michigan Broncos and the UCF Knights proved to casual observers of the game that the CFP is rigged against many of the teams represented in the original “Who’s In?” ad.

Western Michigan, of the Mid-American Conference, finished the 2016 season with a 13-0 record going into bowl play. No matter what it did, Western Michigan could not break No. 15 in the CFP rankings. In keeping the undefeated Broncos out of the Top Four, the CFP Committee sent three one-loss teams into the Playoff, meaning an undefeated team would not even have the opportunity to play for the game’s top prize, despite an undefeated team existing. Unlike the BCS, in which only two slots were available, four teams could take a swing at the title in the new format, but not even one of those teams was Western Michigan. Western Michigan fans (and players) had to be asking: What more could we have done?

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To be fair, however, Western Michigan lost in its bowl game. In a convoluted way, the system worked – in losing 24-16 to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, Western Michigan proved it was not National Championship material. But what if Western Michigan had won? If the Broncos had beaten Wisconsin, proving their ability to hang with the top-flight teams, there would have been no way for them to have played for the national title. 2016 turned into 2017, and a new Group of 5 team forced the issue yet again.

Going into 2017, the UCF Knights of the American Athletic Conference were just a season removed from a catastrophic 0-12 campaign in 2015, in which the bottom had fallen out from a team that had won the Fiesta Bowl over a No. 5-ranked Baylor in 2013.

Behind the coaching of Scott Frost, the tremendous quarterback play of McKenzie Milton, and the stellar contributions of 2018 NFL Draft picks-to-be like cornerback Mike Hughes, wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, tight end Jordan Akins, and one-handed linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the Knights could not be beat in 2017. They tore through their schedule, winning game after game. Undefeated in the ninth week, UCF debuted at No. 18 in the CFP rankings.

There is substantial disagreement about the purpose of rankings. Some believe it should simply be a list of the best teams in college football, in order of ability to win against any opponent. This philosophy, however, is ignorant of the reality of the rankings as they relate to the NCAA system – because of the reliance on rankings to produce CFP matchups, the Top Four slots in the rankings must hold a special significance, and the rules for these slots must be different.

Past simply representing the four most talented teams, the Top Four must represent the four teams most deserving of playing for the National Championship. For 15 years, we named national champions based on one game between the top two teams – with two extra slots with which to play, allowing in teams that have earned the right to “prove it” is simply the proper way to administer a subdivision of football. Otherwise, teams mistakenly perceived as “lesser” because of their conference affiliation will have no path to ultimate glory. This is an argument for equality of opportunity, a most American principle, across the subdivision – no matter where you start, you can become the National Champion. For Group of 5 teams, the path may be much narrower (whereas three or four one-loss teams can make the CFP from the Power 5, it is unlikely that a Group of 5 team would warrant inclusion unless it was undefeated), but at least it would exist.

As mentioned earlier, going undefeated is no small feat. Rarely do teams in the “Power 5” conferences accomplish it, but seldom either do teams in the “Group of 5” conferences go through the year unblemished. By its very nature, being undefeated means that no team has been able to line up across from your group of players and win a game against you on a given Saturday. One can project which team would win in a hypothetical matchup, but the only proof that we have as fans is what occurs on the field. Through Week 9, we had already seen teams like Notre Dame and Clemson lose (the two were ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively), but UCF was still unblemished. Adding to the flawed nature of the rankings, four two-loss teams were also ranked ahead of No. 18 UCF.

The Knights went on to win in Week 10 (no subsequent change in their ranking), Week 11 (moved up three slots to No. 15, behind eight two-loss teams), Week 12 – a thriller against a USF team that was ranked No. 22 in the week’s AP Poll, but was conspicuously absent from the CFP rankings (no change), and Week 13 in their Conference Championship against Memphis (moved up one spot, behind various two-loss teams and a three-loss Stanford).

Far from being a team that had started the season well, the Knights were now an undefeated conference champion with multiple wins over teams that were ranked in the AP’s Top 25 at the time of their victories (two triumphs over Memphis, as well as a win over USF). What was most important, however, was that after 12-0 Wisconsin lost in the Big 10 Championship to Ohio State, UCF was the only undefeated team left in college football.

To put that into perspective for a moment, all 130 or so teams began the season undefeated, with no wins and no losses. At the end of the Conference Championship Week, only one team remained: UCF. To put that into further perspective, the College Football Playoff has been around for four years, and in that time period, there have been only five undefeated teams total after Conference Championship Week. Considering the number of teams in the FBS, that amounts to less than a one-percent chance for a given team to be undefeated after that many weeks. UCF being undefeated was no cakewalk – winning each game, week in and week out, has proven to be a challenge for FBS teams regardless of schedule.

Instead of giving UCF one of the four slots, the CFP locked them out. Instead, ACC Champion Clemson, SEC Champion Georgia, Big 12 Champion Oklahoma, and Alabama each made the Playoff. The other Power 5 champions, USC and Ohio State, each had two losses, and were not strong considerations for inclusion.

There was an argument to be made for Clemson, Georgia, and Oklahoma – each had won its conference, each had only one loss, and with four slots available, there was ample room to include each of them. The Alabama pick, however, was a headscratcher. Alabama was not undefeated, and it did not win its conference (nor did it even play in its Conference Championship). Just like Western Michigan fans a year ago, Knights fans asked: What more could we have done?

Ranked No. 14 at this point, the Knights went on to the Peach Bowl against Auburn. The Tigers had the unique distinction of having beaten two of the four teams that were in the CFP (in fact, the Tigers beat the two teams that went on to the National Championship, naturally including the winner, Alabama). Many expected UCF to lose the game, showing once and for all that despite their undefeated record, the Knights did not belong among college football’s blue-blooded elite. And who better than Auburn, a perennial SEC contender that had notched impressive wins against Alabama and Georgia, to teach the upstart Knights a lesson? The spread for the game was Auburn -11.5.

It was not to be, as UCF beat Auburn 34-27. Unlike Western Michigan, UCF ended its season undefeated, proving that it could win against college football’s best. Unfortunately, it did not matter. The Playoff was set, and the undefeated Knights were forced to watch from their couches as four one-loss teams battled for a National Championship.

This was a failure of the system – in fact, it was a compound of the system’s previous failure to reform itself after Western Michigan went undefeated and could not make it in. There was no compelling reason to include Alabama in the 2017 CFP, but there was every reason to let UCF prove itself on the shoulders of an undefeated season and a conference championship. If the Knights lost in the semifinal, it would have been a justified end to the season, as UCF would have had a chance to win it all and fans would have known for sure that the Knights were not fit to play at the highest level. For the Committee, it would still have had three slots to fill with deserving, one-loss Power 5 conference champions. Instead, in a season when UCF did everything it could have done to have had a shot at the grand prize, it beat a top-flight team in a big-time bowl game and was still forced to sit out the Playoff.

To some, this is not an issue. As the argument goes, UCF is from a lesser conference than each of the teams that made the CFP, and its schedule was too easy to justify inclusion in the CFP. Those arguing such points would necessarily answer the Western Michigan fans and the UCF fans, who asked “What more could we have done?”, with just one word – nothing. There was nothing that Western Michigan or UCF could have done; they were out of the running for the National Championship when the season started, before the first kickoff. There is something inherently unfair about a system in which half of the teams in a subdivision start out the season with no hope of winning the national championship in the subdivision.

The College Football Playoff was supposed to fix this problem, but it has actually just created two de facto sub-subdivisions within the FBS. It did not have to be this way, and the CFP Committee is to blame; given the incredibly low instance of undefeated seasons for any team in FBS play (whether Power 5 or Group of 5), the Committee could have easily thrown a bone to Group of 5 fans and operated under the principle that undefeated teams must be given a slot in the Playoff. In so doing over the last two seasons, the CFP would have retained a total of six slots for Power 5 teams while heading off a legitimate gripe from half of the subdivision’s fanbases that the system was not made for their favorite teams.

After beating Auburn, the Knights went on to claim that they were the 2017 National Champions. They are correct. UCF beat every team that came its way and won a major bowl game over a well-respected team. The fact that a non-conference champion (which lost to Auburn, no less) ended up winning the CFP Final only serves to bolster the point.

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For the NCAA, there are only two paths forward, and neither of them involve an expansion of the Playoff (expansion is not necessary – the Committee just needs to be more judicious about slotting or the whole system needs an overhaul).

Under the first course of action, the NCAA could mandate the adoption of the aforementioned principle in the Committee’s selection process: Undefeated FBS teams make the Playoff. Some will argue that this will lead Group of 5 schedulers to put together easier slates of games, but the incentive for doing this already exists, given the New Year’s Six bowl berth that goes to the top-ranked Group of 5 team. It is difficult to imagine schedules being much different if this change is implemented, especially with how low the likelihood of an undefeated season is.

As previously mentioned, undefeated seasons are so rare that reserving slots for undefeated teams would very rarely take all of the slots off of the board. In fact, even if there were four undefeated teams, it is likely that those teams would be the ones selected anyway for the Playoff. With an average of two per season, however (and fewer than that in recent years), it is in the Committee’s best interest to reward those teams that achieve perfection with a chance to win it all. And for those who are most focused on the bottom line: From a marketing standpoint, who doesn’t love an “underdog” making it to the Playoff?

The second course of action is to acknowledge that there is a gap between the Power 5 and the Group of 5 in terms of schedule strength that cannot be bridged, formally recognize that there are two tiers in the FBS, and create a Group of 5 championship. The CFP Committee could fill the at-large bid in the New Year’s Six with another Power 5 team, while allowing programs like UCF and Western Michigan to have a chance to play in a championship game. Maybe even make the Group of 5 Championship a New Year’s game itself.

Viewership for the Group of 5 Championship would likely be strong. The FCS Championship garnered over a million viewers last season, but four times as many people watched the previously mentioned UCF-USF game. For comparison, the CFP National Championship attracted 28.4 million viewers.

Breaking up the Power 5 and Group of 5 does not need to be anything dramatic; simply creating a newly named subdivision under which the Group of 5 teams could formally compete for championships (while keeping a healthy slate of cross-subdivision games to fill out the schedules, and also maintaining Group of 5 participation as it is in FBS bowls) would suffice. Perhaps it could be called the FTS – the Football Title Subdivision, as its purpose is to facilitate the achievement of a national title for Group of 5 teams who necessarily have a ceiling as it currently stands. NCAA D-IA football would feature the FBS, FTS, and FCS under the new system; the NCAA would be able to sell the broadcast rights to another championship game; and the UCF problem would not rear its ugly head again, splitting the college football fanbase into factions.

Either way, there needs to be change, because what UCF experienced in 2017 was unacceptable. No college football player should ever stare down the length of his team’s schedule and be resigned to the fact that even if his team wins every game they play, he will not have a chance to be a national champion in his own subdivision. Under the current system, that is the reality, but the NCAA can fix it.

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