College Football

What UCF deserves after losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl

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This New Year’s Day was surreal for me.

It’s the first time in my life I think I’ve ever rooted for LSU in a game that wasn’t against Georgia. It’s certainly the first time I’ve ever cared about the outcome for the Tigers in a game that didn’t materially impact Florida’s chances at winning something.

But as the game wore on, I started thinking about what UCF has accomplished and what they deserve.

Respect

The Knights players certainly deserve respect.

If going 13-0 and 12-1 in consecutive seasons were easy, lots of teams in the American Conference or Conference USA would do it. In the history of the conference (since 2013), only Houston (13-1 in 2015), Louisville (12-1 in 2013) and UCF (12-1 in 2013) have put together one-loss regular seasons.

UCF has gone undefeated two years in a row. They’ve also stood toe-to-toe with the SEC for two straight bowl games.

Now, anyone who watched the game against LSU on Tuesday knows that the Tigers dominated. UCF was outgained 555-250. While LSU ran 25 more plays, the Tigers also averaged 6.5 yards per play versus 4.1 for UCF. This should have been a four touchdown win.

But it wasn’t and regardless of how much I might want to blame Ed Orgeron for that, UCF deserves credit for having a chance at the end.

And last season, they were not overmatched versus Auburn. In that game, Auburn ran 16 more plays but averaged a full yard less per play than UCF (4.8 vs. 5.8). McKenzie Milton outplayed Jarrett Stidham thoroughly (YAR of 1.22 vs. -1.90). UCF deserved to win that game.

We can talk all we want about motivation and who wanted to be there, but the fact is that Auburn showed up and got beat. That’s on them and a credit to UCF.

Credit

The Knights also deserve credit for accomplishing what they’ve accomplished.

In both 2017 and 2018, UCF has averaged the best conference recruiting ranking (2.8 and 2.5) of any team in the AAC. As I illustrated in a previous article dealing with Power-5 teams, being the top recruiter in your conference does translate to wins.

But it doesn’t translate to never losing.

UCF hasn’t lost a conference game in two years. They have gone 5-1 in one-score games. That does indicate a significant amount of luck. But it also indicates that Scott Frost and Josh Heupel have done a good job pulling the right strings during games and that the UCF players have executed when it counts.

UCF has also played eight non-conference games and gone 7-1. They are 3-1 against teams with higher national recruiting rankings than them (Pitt, LSU, Maryland and Auburn). UCF’s national average is in the low 60s over the last five years, while Maryland and Pitt were in the 30s the four years prior to playing UCF and LSU and Auburn were in the top-10.

Power-5 teams win games against more talented teams somewhere between 30-40 percent of the time (depending on the talent gap). We would expect UCF to have gone either 1-3 or 2-2 in those games, particularly because three of the four were away from Orlando.

The fact that the Knights have gone 3-1 and beat the brakes off of Maryland and Pitt is indicative of the skill level of this team.

Sympathy

The players didn’t ask for this circus.

They went out and beat the teams in front of them. The schedule that they played was set before many of them ever set foot on campus or signed a letter of intent to play at UCF. They couldn’t have known when they signed that they would become the lightning rod for the battle between the haves and have-nots of college football.

I don’t blame the players at all for asserting that they belong amongst the big boys. They’ve actually done a pretty good job of proving it over the past two seasons. And what are they supposed to say? That they’re just happy to be there and they’re scared of the SEC?

I saw an overmatched team playing LSU, but despite that, they played harder than a lot of teams I’ve watched during the bowl season. Yes I know that LSU was missing most of its defense. But we shouldn’t gloss over the loss of McKenzie Milton, a player who has put up transcendent numbers over the past two seasons.

Statistics for UCF QB McKenzie Milton in 2017, 2018 and against teams with higher aggregate recruiting rankings. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Using my Yards above Replacement (YAR) metric, Milton was Heisman-worthy in 2017 and pretty close until injured in 2018. While his efficiency through the air went down against Power-5 opponents with more aggregate talent than UCF, his YAR stayed elite because of his ability to run the ball.

I don’t know whether Milton would have tilted the tables in UCF’s favor against LSU. But his backup, Darriel Mack, Jr. had a YAR of -3.95 in the game.

This is also part of the argument against UCF though. When you have someone like Milton, you can’t afford to run him and put him at risk because of what it means if he goes out. He’s not Tim Tebow (6’3”, 230 lbs). Instead, Milton is 5’11” and 185 lbs. But UCF has to run him to make its offense go and with that comes the risk of injury.

I feel enormous sympathy for Milton, as you never expect a knee injury of that severity. But he wasn’t injured on a scramble or a freak incident. He kept the ball on a read-option play and got hit.

Derision

The players at UCF don’t deserve any of the criticism that is now going to come UCF’s way. That should be reserved for its fans and administration.

The claim of a national championship based on the Colley Matrix ranking was fine. I thought it was hokey, but there are more egregious things they could have done. Go ahead and claim your championship and hang your banners.

The place where things started to change for me was the “epic takeover” of College Gameday.

The idea that a bunch of UCF fans were going to use a game between Florida and Georgia to push their agenda didn’t sit well with me. Had a Florida fan (or Georgia fan) actually harmed a UCF fan who decided to show up for Gameday, I would have fully supported their prosecution. But I would have also sympathized with them, as it would have been due to the UCF fans inciting things in a situation where they didn’t belong.

When Florida fans indicated the takeover was a bad idea on Twitter, those Gators fans were blamed for making threats rather than UCF fans taking the blame for inciting the situation in the first place. For the organizers to bow up and claim they wouldn’t back down, then immediately back down upon being called on their aggressive tactics struck me as manipulative and unfair.

Then you had the escapades of UCF Athletic Director Danny White. I don’t have the time nor energy to go over his positions, but suffice it to say that he’s decided that working within the system internally is going to be less effective than working outside of it.

He may be right. If UCF’s performance tails off going forward, they may get left out when the next round of realignment happens. I contend though that program performance will be less important than having partners who want to work with you, but that’s White’s choice to make.

But the other issue is that he’s shilling for an 8-team playoff that is going to come eventually just because of money. Putting Stricklin (and others) on blast for perpetuating the current playoff system isn’t going to help.

Stricklin is on the playoff committee. Even if he wanted an expanded playoff, he couldn’t say so as the current contract is in the fifth year of twelve and pays out $7.2 billion. To publicly admit he’s in favor of making changes would undermine the system in place and potentially alienate partners far more important than UCF.

White has to know this, yet he is pleading both publicly and in email records that are easily requested for Stricklin to partner with him to make changes. I’m actually surprised that Stricklin hasn’t publicly told him more forcefully to take a walk.

Takeaway

None of which changes the admiration I have for UCF’s players and coaches.

What they’ve accomplished the last two years is impressive. That doesn’t mean I think they could withstand the rigors of an SEC schedule, but to be quite honest I don’t have a lot of confidence that three quarters of the ACC, Pac-12 or any other Power-5 conference could either. And if you told me I could have McKenzie Milton on my team, I’d take him in an instant.

I also kind-of understand the angst coming from a UCF fanbase that feels like it is being constantly overlooked and disrespected. I think it is misplaced, as nobody had anything bad to say about UCF until the administration decided to take an aggressive tact, but I do understand.

What I’m not willing to do is suggest that UCF is in any way deserving of a chance to make its case in the playoff. The AAC is 2-5 this bowl season and has been outscored 305-203. The two wins are against a bad Virginia Tech team and Louisiana.

Additionally, there are options on the table for UCF to improve its non-conference schedule. Add 2-and-1 series against Florida and Ohio State (or similar programs) and win those games and I think they’ve got an argument.

Is it fair? No, it’s not.

But it wasn’t fair when Utah went 12-0 in 2004 and had to settle for the Fiesta Bowl and a finish of fourth in the AP Poll. Nor was it fair when TCU went 13-0 in 2010 and finished second in the AP Poll after beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

But Utah is now in the Pac-12, TCU is now in the Big-12 and both of them have a legitimate shot at the title every year.

And that’s what I hope comes out of UCF’s win over Auburn last year and gritty showing against LSU this year. The players and coaches deserve to have their school considered the next time expansion comes around so that future UCF teams can compete for the title. They’ve earned that.

I just hope their administration hasn’t already prevented it from happening.

Featured image used under Creative Commons license courtesy elisfkc 

22 Comments

  1. Kathy Strong

    Great perspective. I’d have more respect for UCF coaches and players had they played a cleaner game. Play with respect and character, and even the well intentioned yet abrasive comments of an AD who’s passion is greater than his social graces won’t deter the teamon being taken seriously.

  2. RANDY

    They could have been a feel good story like Boise was back in the day. They went a different route and had people pulling against them because of it.

  3. Steve

    Will, the last thing I want is for expansion to come around. These two quotes explain it all.

    And let’s be honest here, college sports administrators would put heroin dealers to shame for all the ethics they have shown in the conference realignment dog’n’pony.

    Ray Ratto

    The strength of a conference — and this is one of the things you need to look at long and hard — is built on the relationships with a limited number of institutions. … When you lose that, I think you’ve gone outside of what you want to do.

    Roy Kramer

    Remember playing Auburn every year? Then remember playing Auburn twice every five years? Do you like playing Auburn twice every thirteen years? Do you like playing Mizzou every year? I don’t.

    We have plenty on our plate to improve our own conference. No tears for UCF and the AAC.

    • Will Miles

      I don’t want expansion either. Doesn’t matter what I want. If it generates more dollars, they’ll do it.

  4. Mark

    100% agreed. This article is spot on. I have a lot of respect for the UCF players after the LSU game, even if they got beat soundly (and it should have been much worse without ACC referees). The UCF fans and administration drive me up a wall, though. I don’t like feeling like a hater, but I certainly was on Tuesday. Geaux tigers, glad to see them beat UCF.

    Heupel will not be able to keep Frost’s magic going, but he should be able to keep them 9-3 or 10-2 most years. They have had their flash in the pan this season and the players deserve every bit of success they’ve had. I hope next time they have a successful season we can all enjoy it together and cheer for Cinderella, instead of rolling our eyes at the bogus claims they make after the season.

    • Philip

      UCF doesn’t want to be anyone’s Cinderella, they want an equal chance to compete. The arrogance of gator fans is amazing. What did UF do to earn their way into the SEC?

      UCF is the ONLY school to play every level of college football, the only one. Div III, Div II, 1-AA and Div 1. After getting to Div 1, UCF had to go from Independent to the MAC, to CUSA, to the Big East to the AAC. UCF had one year in an Autobid conference to the BCS and upset a Teddy Bridgewater Louisville team to go to the Fiesta Bowl where UCF beat the Bog 12 Champions.

      Enough about earning, UCF has paid their dues. Accepting a 2-0-1 deal from UF is foolish. Two games at Uf’s Stadium and one at the Citrus bowl, NOT UCF’s stadium. Why would or should UCF do that. Unlike UF, UCF didn’t have state money to build their stadium so UCF has a debt service on their stadium, UCF needs their home games.

      • Will Miles

        You can yell and scream at the owner of your company in front of all of his/her employees for not giving you big enough raise but I suspect they would appreciate a one-on-one sit-down instead if you’re unhappy with your pay. And you don’t want equal treatment compared to Houston, USF or other teams in your conference because those teams have decided to schedule the 2-for-1’s and work within the system.

      • Slash

        Philip, check your rhetoric. UF is one of the founding schools of the SEC. That was 50 years before UCF’s first football game. UCF didnt even exist when the SEC was formed.

        This article is spot on regarding respect for your undefeated seasons and your bowl wins. I have attended almost every UCF home game for the last 4 years. But im also a Gator fan/graduate. One major difference is UF fans never quit on their teams even during the Muschamp and Mac 4 & whatever years. I went to every home game of O’leary’s final season (in the bouncehouse) and was appalled by the lack of support and the awful attitude of those alumni and students that did show. The stadium was empty and what students that did show up thought it was funny to wear bags on their heads.

        UCF has had some successes to be proud of. But they’ve got a lot of growing up to do before anyone will listen to your demands

  5. Hoops

    As a Knight fan, this is a very balanced article. We had a great 2 year run, and do expect to continue this success.

    As for Boise, they played “nice “ with their success, and look what that got them – MWC for eternity. UCF hopes for much better, should any conference choose to invite us. Note the word invite – we do have a pretty good case for inclusion, but it does require an invite. Look what we’ve done with 10% of P5 $$, and then project what could happen if we got that other 90%.

    People characterize Danny White as brash and challenging the status quo. In my mind he reminds me of another young brash and status quo challenging icon – Steve Spurrier. Hell, he even vocally sounds like him and sort of looks like the young Spurrier. And just how did his attitude work out for him and UF? Pretty well, if you ask virtually anybody, especially Gators

    • Juan

      Boise St is stuck in MWC because of their academics, alumni base, and lack of a TV market anyone cares about not because they tried to use the system. Those are things UCF wouldn’t have to deal with. UCF’s academics aren’t as good as UF’s but they’re more than good enough for inclusion in a P5 conference. They have a large alumni base. And Orlando is a very valuable market.

      TCU getting to the Big12 or FSU of the 70s and 80s getting to the ACC is the better example of why you should move within the system. More so than the Boise St comparison as UCF is much more like TCU or FSU.

      With that said, UCF will have a hard time getting an invite from the SEC or the ACC. The Big12 is the only conference I could see inviting UCF (though backing out of the game at TX last year probably alienated one the most powerful ADs in that conference and has a possibility of hurting UCF’s chances).

      Orlando is a market the ACC and SEC have on lock already. Between FSU in the north and Miami in the south and their alums wanting coverage of those teams in every major Florida city, the ACC already gets enough coverage there. The SEC already has UF in the center of the state and our alums blanket the state too, and they want coverage in those cities too. No real incentive for those two conferences to offer.

      I guess the BIG10 or even the Pac12 (1 in 1,000,000 odds on that to me) could in theory but that would be a ridiculously far distance for teams to travel. Though I guess Big12 did that with WVU so who knows.

      Also, please do not compare Danny White to the HBC. Spurrier was brash but always hilarious which made him likable, White is just brash.

      • Erik

        I would say UCF would better fit the Big 12 as their identity more closely resembles the conference: lots of offense and just enough defense to win in some tight spots. I do not enjoy all the hate I see between Florida and UCF fans as I come from a Gator family and attend UCF. I want to say that these controversies caused by UCF fans does not represent all UCF fans. I agree that UCF still needs to play ball, regardless of fair series contracts or not, and hope to move into the power 5 eventually. I have faith for that and am excited for what the state of Florida has to offer college football over the upcoming years. Go Gators and Charge on!

  6. CGator

    I pretty much agree. UCF looked better than I expected against LSU, but it’s hard to value the loss of Milton against the loss of so many LSU defenders. Probably slightly worse for UCF, but who knows? And it was LSU, after all … known for finding ways to kill its seasons. As for UCF, I think they blundered. They should swallow their pride and take the Bobby Bowden approach. FSU was going nowhere until Bowden hit the road to play every tough team he could schedule. He earned national respect, and FSU became a national brand. White acting as if UCF has already earned parity with the UFs of the world is a joke. If UCF goes 8-3 or 9-2 next year, their moment might have passed them by.

    • Hoops

      At the beginning of the Bowden era there were 70+ D1 independent FB programs, and far fewer members of conferences thus fewer conference games. Today there are 1.5 D1 FB programs and any school in a conference will play 8-9 conference games. Throw in that virtually every P5 program schedules 2 OOC games against lower tier G5 and/or FCS teams, the opportunity Bowden enjoyed 40 years ago doesn’t exist today

      • Mark

        The oppportunity Bowden would have taken was offered by UF and rejected by UCF just a few days ago!

        I know life isn’t fair for UCF and they want to be considered a top dog, but unless they are willing to prove they belong by accepting a 2/1 and WINNING the games, they will continue to be left out and talking about how unfair life is.

        UCF (Danny White) has chosen to put their own pride over the good of the university as a whole. Yes, it would be unfortunate to lose ONE home game one year (since they said they wanted a home and home, the only thing they are really arguing about is the one additional home game for UF). But if UCF is as good as they think they are, they have the opportunity to make the playoffs 3 years in a row by beating UF. That would be a quality win and could have elevated them from 8 to 4 this season, and if they made the playoff in 1 of the 3 seasons, I would think that would be well worth the revenue lost from a single home game. The revenue boost from being the actual national champion is substantially more than what is generated from a single UCF home game.

        It might not be the greatest offer from UF, but it’s an offer they have the leverage to make. UF does not need UCF, but UCF needs UF (or a school with similar standing) to legitimize them.

        Unless some other top power 5 school comes along and offers UCF a home and home, they have cut off their nose to spite their face. It is not a fair world we live in, but UCF had the opportunity to improve their standing in college football and they turned that chance down – now they’ll have to live with that decision.

        • Hoops

          Two problems with the supposed UF offer.

          First, the offer was made by Stricklin in order to deflect a reporter’s question whether he influenced the CFP Committee to avoid playing UCF in the Peach Bowl. There was never an actionable offer.

          Second, if you read the email exchange between Stricklin and White, the discussion centered around 2 games at UF, and the UCF game at Camping World Stadium not at Spectrum Stadium on campus. (a 2-0-1). White responded with a 1-1-1 suggestion, which Stricklin declined.

          • Mark

            While it’s true it wasn’t actionable, I think it is safe to assume that if White publically agreed to the offer, Stricklin would have to honor that pledge. There is no way UF would want that bad publicity of having it actually appear like they were ducking UCF by not taking them up on the offer.

            Second, yes it was offered at camping world, but that would only bring more money to both sides and would likely benefit both universities. It was also a starting point of negotiations, and I’m guessing (admittedly, only guessing) that UF would have agreed to go to UCF’s actual stadium if that was the only sticking point in the deal. Again, UCF could have used the threat of bad publicity and UF would likely have agreed instead of having it appear like UF was ducking UCF.

            Either way, the hardline stance by UCF was not a productive negotiation tactic, unless they really wanted no part of the Gators. I’m not positive that was Danny White’s motive, but it was certainly all he accomplished.

  7. Richard J Sassatelli

    Great article. Balanced and we’ll thought out. Thanks for acknowledging UCF’s accomplishments despite their loss. Reminds me of Zenyatta getting beat at the wire by Blame for the only blemish on her record that actually made her look more courageous and admired.

  8. Chaz

    Thank you for a fair and well expressed assessment. Stepping back and letting reasoned thought take the lead is the best way to handle the controversy surrounding UCF. AD White is using classic irritant/annoying techniques often employed by those holding less advantageous positions. He and his admin cohorts
    responsible for these circus sideshow tactics are the rightful recipients of the animus directed to the way of UCF.

  9. Robert Dotson

    UCF is a very good tier 2 (FBS) football program. To consider them as a top tier program is ludicrous. The 2018 team went 12-0 but did not play a single team ranked in the top 25, polls as of Dec 31st. UCF’s non-conference schedule included S Carolina St (MEAC) and FAU (Conf USA) and the only top 25 team they played was LSU and they were beaten soundly, and that was with LSU without 8 defensive starters and losing two more during the game. For UCF to think they “deserve” a place in the CFP is again, ludicrous. To expect more respect comes with play on the field with a reasonable schedule and SOS. Until then, enjoy beating other AAC teams and go back into your tier 2 fantasy land.

    • Seth

      Cincinnati was ranked in the Top 25 when CF played them, and the Bearcats were beaten soundly. Also, as a point of reference, Oklahoma made it into the college playoffs. Sure, their strength of schedule was considerably better. Their defense (I believe ranked #106 going into the CFP), however, was atrocious and ranked much, much lower. Why is only one factor taken into account?

      To talk about LSU’s missing defenders is one-sided when you also ignore that a Heisman candidate level QB for the other team was missing. It’s only the most important position on the field.

  10. Always enjoy your writing Will.

    Well stated. I have been nothing but excited for UCF during this run. Like you I’ve just grown weary of the chest beating of admin/annoying fans. It undermines the phenomenal efforts of their players and staff.

    Like you, I’m heartbroken for Mr. Milton. Such a great kid and an amazing, generational sort of talent that I loved watching play the game.

    I’m a die-hard lifer Gator, but I am reasonable enough to bark back to Bobby Bowden and the Seminole’s march to national prominence taking on all comets in the late 70’s-early 80’s. Ditto Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmie Johnson with UM. Nothing but admiration for the way the kicked ass and took names against anyone who played them. UCF has every bit as much potential to do the same seeing as they in so many ways resemble the UF I grew up with in the 70’s-80’s with a massive, state-culled, ardently school proud student and alumni population.

    Let’s hope they can focus on continued on field accomplishments and shed the jilted little Brother facade.

    Thanks!
    Tom
    Go Gators!
    (And Go Knights unless they’re playing the Gators!)

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