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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.