The UCF Knights had a New Year’s Day to remember as the No. 12 ranked Knights defeated the No. 7 ranked Auburn Tigers 34-27 in the 50th annual Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl. For UCF, this was perfection. They finished their dream season as the only undefeated team in FBS and the first since Florida State in 2014. For Auburn, this was a reward for defeating two teams in the College Football Playoffs.
This was a strange season.
The teams on top were all flawed in some way and it was exploited at some point. Clemson lost to Syracuse. Oklahoma lost to Iowa State. Georgia and Alabama each lost to Auburn. Auburn lost to Clemson, LSU, and their second outing against Georgia. Ohio State lost to Oklahoma and then got blown out by Iowa. Conventional logic would say that an undefeated team who led the nation in scoring would fare pretty well.
That is not how this story played out.
UCF was consistently dogged by the College Football Playoff Committee and ranked below their worth. Coach Scott Frost, coaching his last game with the team, did not hold his tongue, “I was watching every week, the Committee sitting in a room and decide 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. 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. And oh no, now we have to put them in a playoff. But we just beat a team that beat two playoff teams and lost to another on by six points and we beat them by seven.” While this highlights fundamental flaws with the CFP and FBS football as a whole, UCF was on a mission to cap what has been nothing short of a magical season.
When this matchup was announced, there were mixed feelings. Depending on who you talked to, you’d get a different narrative as to how the game was perceived. Some media circles viewed this game as a slap in UCF’s face. Some already started spinning it as a game Auburn might not be motivated to win. Some viewed it as a chance to prove doubters wrong.
Wouldn’t the best way to prove doubters wrong be to have them play the best? It is, but the system wouldn’t allow that. It was almost fitting that UCF had to face Auburn, who beat Alabama and Georgia and had that close loss to Clemson.
As it turns out, the game did not disappoint.
UCF showed up in force. They sold out their 12,500 ticket allotment in 24 hours, the fastest ever for a Group of 5 school. The fans swarmed in on Atlanta. It would have been difficult to walk around downtown near Centennial Park without seeing fans wearing black and gold walking around.
At game time, Knights fans out-attended Auburn fans easily. It wasn’t close. UCF was very loud too. UCF offensive lineman Wyatt Miller said, “It felt like a home atmosphere. Great support.” When the sound system started playing Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400, the Knights fans all jumped up and down together with their cell phone lights on.
It’s a reminder why college football is so great.
When the clock hit 0:00, pandemonium broke out on the field. The fans cheered, the players ran and celebrated, and the college football world was put on notice. UCF athletic director Danny White went as far to call UCF a national champion. They have a compelling argument in the face of a rigged system.
This was a UCF team that could score. They scored at least 30 points in every game of the season. They played 11 straight games due to their schedule getting turn sideways as a result of Hurricane Irma. They fought against a system that was designed to make sure they stayed down.
The game itself is a microcosm of the world non-Power 5 schools face.
Prior to the game, UCF had been pushing for more consideration with the CFP. Finishing only 12th, they received their Peach Bowl bid as the highest finishing Group of 5 team. Being the only undefeated team and finishing outside of the top 10 upset the school and a lot of media not involved with the CFP.
As for the game, UCF struggled offensively for the first half. McKenzie Milton could not find any semblance of rhythm and his accuracy was nowhere near the field. It took some creativity to generate any offense. UCF’s best strategy was Milton tucking the ball and running. He ended up with his first 100-yard rushing game of the season. The kid they call “KZ” set the school’s best single-season rushing record by a quarterback with 613 yards, passing Jeff Godfrey’s 566 in 2010. Milton’s throwing started settling down and he ended up with a pair of touchdown passes. That earned him 37 on the season.
The defense carried the team. UCF stacked the box to keep Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson under wraps and it worked. Johnson averaged a paltry 3.2 yards a carry. The plan was to make quarterback Jarrett Stidham the tigers focal point and he did a pretty good job. He passed for over 300 yards, but it was his two interceptions that did the Tigers in. The first was an interception by Chequan Burkett that was returned 45 yards for six. It was caused by an offensive lineman getting pushed into Stidham and shifting his trajectory just enough that it went right to Burkett. The second one was an overthrown ball late in the game to Antwan Collier, who intercepted an overthrown ball to seal the game and kickstarted the party.
You’d think that the season would be over with that final whistle, but it was merely the start. Athletic director Danny White gave a short sound byte that has turned the college football world on its side.
This has happened more times than you think. While this hasn’t happened very often in recent history, this has happened multiple times over the years and in sometimes more unusual circumstances. In the past, it was not unusual to have multiple national champions in a given season. It’s happened during the BCS era once with a true major human pole split and has happened even last year with some computer rankings awarding against the grain.
How does this work and how can UCF’s title claim become legitimate?
— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) January 9, 2018
Despite what people think, neither the CFP nor the NCAA award national titles for FBS football. The NCAA has recognized a number of publications who do just that, including the AP, USA Today, Sagarin rankings and more. We traditionally pay attention to the first two and for the most part, they all line up with each other after that final game. They don’t always though. Here, UCF uses the claim that they went undefeated and defeated the team that beat each of the teams playing for a CFP national championship. Note that the title game is called the CFP national championship. It garners a trophy, but the publications and computer rankings are not bound based on the results of the game.
Going into the CFP championship game, UCF was in the top two in three computer rankings: The Anderson & Hester, the Colley Matrix, and the Wolfe. These are all legitimate ranking systems. All three of these computer rankings predate the BCS era and are still recognized today. What UCF needed to even have a chance of securing one of them was an Alabama win over Georgia.
After what eventually became a very close game, Alabama won the CFP championship in overtime. This propelled Alabama up in all of the polls and rankings. UCF fell by very small margins to Alabama in the Anderson & Hester and the Wolfe. However, in the Colley Matrix, UCF’s score withstood against Alabama’s win.
So what does this mean?
It means UCF’s claim as a national champion is no longer just a claim. While Alabama will be the consensus national champion, UCF will be in the NCAA record books as a national champion as decided by the Colley Matrix. The consensus national champion is the winner of the AP poll, USA Today/Amway poll, and the FWAA-NFF Grantland Rice Super 16 poll. In today’s college football world, we don’t see much talk outside of the non-consensus national championships, but they exist. In 2016, Alabama still was No. 1 in three rankings after the CFP despite losing to Clemson. In the year prior, Alabama was a unanimous champion.
Sometimes, an approved ranking system ends up a bit sideways. See the 1941 Alabama Crimson Tide. They claim it as a national title season despite being 20th in the Associated Press poll due to an obscure ranking system putting them on top.
Preemptively and regardless of the final results, UCF went all the way with this. They have been putting it out there everywhere that they are a national champion. They held a national championship parade at Disney and a party in downtown Orlando. They are in the process of paying their coaches national championship bonuses. With the Colley Matrix backing it, there is nothing ceremonial about this in the eyes of the NCAA. It’s real.
There are bigger things in play here though. What White has done has not been just for UCF, but it has essentially kickstarted a class war between the power conferences and the non-power conferences. The smaller leagues have long felt that the system was designed to keep them down. UCF with their success, as well as the struggles they have had with the CFP, has become the cannon fodder needed to push the issue. Pundits who support major conferences have not taken this well, the SEC in particular. The SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum has gone as far as to call UCF cockroaches. Pundits who are not tied to a conference or a network that plays a role in the CFP have been far more positive towards what UCF is doing. Former coach Scott Frost, who left after this season for his alma mater Nebraska, has been unabashed in his slamming of the subjectiveness of the CFP Committee. Even the head coaches of last Monday’s game, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, each commented about the lack of fairness in the system. Smart added that if he was with UCF, he’d do the same thing. Both former Florida State coaching legend Bobby Bowden and Florida QB Tim Tebow support UCF’s stance. The governor of the state of Florida even signed a proclamation declaring the Knights national champions. All of the pageantry and bravado UCF displayed was reflected in the Associated Press poll as UCF nabbed 4 first-place votes away from Alabama. It’s the first time since 2011 the consensus champion wasn’t unanimous in the AP poll. With at least one NCAA recognized ranking system putting UCF on top, it has validated everything the Knights athletic department and administration have done.
The financial windfall has been a major boon to the school as well. According to Joyce Julius & Associates, the school has netted approximately 17.5 million dollars in media exposure
UCF, it’s truly time to celebrate. Be proud and talk the big game. Have a parade and wear that national championship. It’s been earned and deserved.
I've been writing off and on since 2003, where I first wrote for Southern College Sports. After a hiatus, I returned in 2012 with The Sports Chronicles, a predecessor of NGSC Sports. After a brief stint with WBLZ in 2017, I have returned to NGSC Sports. Also, from 2015 to 2017, I helped run Off the Cuff, a sports program and blog with STLR Media.
I have done radio and podcasts dating back to 2006 with The Student of the Game, an NFL podcast. In 2012, I cohosted TSC Saturday Night on the Sports Chronicles and The OT With Andrew G on WTMY in Sarasota, FL. I later moved the OT to NGSC Sports until 2014 where I started The College Cram, also on NGSC Sports. After a brief hiatus, I returned to radio in 2015 with both Off the Cuff on STLR and The Mad Scientist Sports Lab on The Inscriber.