UCF’s Peach Bowl defeat of Auburn capped the only perfect season in the FBS in 2017, punctuated the sheer stupidity of the Knights ending the regular season at No. 12. After not factoring into the College Football Playoff conversation whatsoever, UCF scored a win in some ways identical to the seminal Sugar Bowl that helped give birth to the Playoff itself.
Utah went into the 2009 Sugar Bowl as college football’s only undefeated team, but a heavy underdog to SEC runner-up Alabama. It didn’t take long to understand the Utes, representing the non-BCS Mountain West Conference, were at the level of their opponents from the mighty Southeastern Conference.
A two-touchdown win to preserve the nation’s only perfect record should have warranted a split national championship; after all, BCS-era precedent existed for such an occurrence when USC claimed a share of the 2003 season’s title with LSU.
And yet, despite beating as many ranked opponents as BCS champion Florida without a loss, the groundswell for a split championship didn’t rise above a light rumble. Utah garnered 16 first-place AP votes to Florida’s 48.
The tumultuous 2008 season sent a clear message that non-automatic qualifiers would never get a fair shake at playing for a national championship. In response, the Mountain West Conference filed an antitrust lawsuit against the BCS. This lawsuit put pressure on college football to restructure its postseason
Though the Mountain West led the charge against the BCS — and at the time was an ideal candidate, with perennially ranked Utah, TCU and BYU — conference realignment removed it from the Playoff discussion. UCF’s home American Athletic Conference is a worthy banner-carrier in this new debate from a perspective similar to that of the BCS era Mountain West: Both conferences featured teams regularly in the Top 25 at season’s end, and sometimes multiple. UCF will be joined by rival USF in the final AP Top 25, and perhaps West division champion Memphis, despite its one-point bowl loss to Iowa State.
The American has an addition beef with the current format, losing the automatic-qualifier status it enjoyed as the Big East and in the first season of the AAC during the BCS years. Rumors of the Big East losing its AQ status surfaced commensurate with the early molding of the Playoff — which also coincided with the Big East’s television contract at ESPN expiring.
Uncertainty led to instability, and the Big East was pillaged in conference realignment, losing West Virginia and TCU (the latter before it ever played a game) to the Big 12; Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC; and Rutgers to the Big Ten. Boise State and San Diego State — both of which appeared in the Top 25 this past season — were slated to join but the uncertainty of the conference’s qualifications kept both in the Mountain West.
The Playoff directly sabotaged the Big East, but the American has managed to thrive in the aftermath thanks to the emergence of its high-potential programs like Houston (13-1 in 2015 with a Peach Bowl win over Florida State) and UCF, which now boasts as many New Year’s Six bowl wins since 2013 as Oklahoma.
UCF is no one-hit wonder, which might help its Playoff case next season despite losing head coach Scott Frost to Nebraska. The return of McKenzie Milton — who went for 242 yards passing with two touchdowns and rushed for another 116 yards with one score against Auburn — gives the Knights a cornerstone for 2018.
However, that’s the almost-unwinnable shell game the Playoff’s created for the Group of Five: One great season isn’t enough. A program needs two consecutive seasons at the level of UCF’s 2017 to be considered for title contention.
At least, that’s the theory. There’s no guarantee given the lack of precedent that a Group of Five member stringing together back-to-back perfect seasons (which hasn’t happened since Nebraska in 1994-1995) would change anything. UCF’s single-season resume was already pretty solid, and the Knights were ranked 12th going into the Peach Bowl.
Wins over 10+ win teams:
• UCF: Auburn, USF, Memphis x2
• Oklahoma: Ohio State, TCU, Oklahoma State
• Georgia: Notre Dame, Appalachian State, Auburn
• Clemson: Auburn, Miami
• Alabama: Fresno State
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) January 2, 2018
And now, after the Peach Bowl, UCF is guaranteed a transitive claim to the national championship with Auburn having beaten both Alabama and Georgia. I imagine the groundswell for an AP split championship this time will be even less significant for Utah in 2008, suggesting the chasm between power programs and outsiders now is even wider than it was in the BCS era.