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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For Mike Gundy, the tipping point came late. He appreciated the sheer audacity of the claim. Paying the coaches' bonuses was great. The parade was cool. The rings? Hey, he's been known to do funky things with rings.
"But when I saw the banner," Gundy says, "that was a little different for me. ... It was a little unusual."
And it has been more than a little unusual to watch as Central Florida has turned the entire football offseason into one long celebration of a self-proclaimed national title. It began after beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl, when UCF athletics director Danny White looked into directly a camera and said, "National champs. Undefeated!" From there it morphed into something, well ... it morphed into something.
"It grew organically," says White, who says it's all in good fun and asks, essentially: Why can't UCF claim a national championship?
Depending on your perspective, the banner at Spectrum Stadium, unveiled last month — "2017 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS" — might not be the most outlandish thing. It was those coaches' bonuses for winning the national title, even after Scott Frost took his entire staff with him to Nebraska. White explains that move — and all of it, really, with a smile and a shrug.
"If we're gonna be national champions," he says, "then we're gonna do what national champions do."
If it roils some, he figures, that's too bad. White's argument, that a 13-0 season capped with a win against a team that handed losses to both Alabama and Georgia — the participants in the College Football Playoff championship game — "was so compelling, I don't know how you could ignore it," he says. "I don't know if I'd be doing my job if I didn't stand up for UCF."
And let's be clear: Claiming a national championship is a time-honored college football tradition. Some schools have done so retroactively (that includes Alabama's decision, a couple of decades back, to add a few titles to the collection).
"Most importantly, we're trying to fight for our kids," White says. "I feel like they earned something. You look at the history of college football, there are lots of teams calling themselves national champions and years where multiple teams call themselves national champions. Our kids have every right to do that if those programs are going to do it."
In that light, UCF's claim is defensible. That the Colley Matrix, a computer ranking system that was once a part of the BCS formula, had the Knights No. 1 in its final ranking, only adds to their argument. And this is where UCF's argument goes big picture.
"I'd love to see it settled on the field," says White, who advocates for an eight-team playoff. "Not saying we'd have won. Not saying we'd have lost. That's the problem. We don't know."
The BCS and now the College Football Playoff are attempts to do just that, of course. Especially with the advent of the Playoff's four-team bracket, chosen by a committee, college football has unified around a single champion. But White contends — and Frost agrees — that UCF did not really have a legitimate opportunity to reach the Playoff. They believe UCF was ranked too low in each of the selection committee's weekly preliminary rankings, and that American Athletic Conference rivals Memphis and South Florida were significantly undervalued, as well.
The Knights' debut in the committee's rankings, when they were 7-0, was at No. 18; in the final rankings they'd ascended only to No. 12. White and Frost suggest there was an invisible ceiling in place, that it was intentional and that it was unfair. Frost calls it "almost criminal."
"I completely get behind their argument," Frost says. "I do think it was almost criminal how low they kept UCF in the rankings, and I think it was intentional. But at the end of the day, the Playoff system is that the national champion is the team that wins the Playoff."
If that sounds like Frost isn't completely aboard the national title train, it's because he's not.
"All I'll say is if we had stayed there, I would have had a hard time getting behind it," he says. "I think it was smart by them, because it has kept UCF in the media and in the conversation. But you know, like our rings, I kind of wish my ring just said 'Undefeated Season' and 'Peach Bowl Champion.'"
Frost isn't wrong about the attention. A report commissioned by the school and released in March claimed the equivalent of more than $200 million in advertising exposure from the football season and the subsequent national title talk. White says it has been "a pretty significant brand-builder," adding, "People are proud of what we've accomplished. They're proud of being affiliated with UCF. They feel we've made a huge jump in terms of building UCF into a household name, a national brand. People that really care about UCF, that are close to it, are really excited."
Others in and around college football don't seem quite as ecstatic. Specifically, UCF's claim has not gone over well with Alabama, which won its fifth national championship in the last nine seasons by beating Georgia in overtime in the College Football Playoff championship game.
Bill Hancock, the Playoff's executive director, declined to comment, except to say: "I don't begrudge them their joyful exuberance." And American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco, who has been a vocal proponent of what he calls the "Power Six," meaning his league should be lumped in with the Power Five conferences, walks a careful line when it comes to UCF's claims.
"I think they have a claim," he says. "I've been a little more circumspect, because you have to respect the College Football Playoff."
Last week, when six conferences held meetings at the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch, several commissioners, athletics directors and coaches polled declined to comment. But many seemed mostly bemused. So UCF wants to claim a national championship?
"What do I care?" says Washington State coach Mike Leach — who then immediately launched into a soliloquy about expanding the Playoff, which, of course, fits nicely into UCF's dream.
Likewise, Gundy thought it was a cool idea.
"When I first heard it, I thought, 'Why the hell not?'" Gundy says.
And he notes that after the 2016 season, when Oklahoma State finished 10-3, he ordered the Cowboys' rings to read "11-2," reflecting his contention they should have been awarded a victory after officials mistakenly gave Central Michigan an extra play that turned into the winning touchdown. But Gundy has been in a situation similar to UCF's, too.
Back in 2011, under the Bowl Championship Series system, Oklahoma State was edged out of the national championship game by the BCS formula; LSU and Alabama instead played in a rematch of a regular-season game. Gundy believed then and now that the Cowboys should have been in the game, and he's not alone in thinking they'd have had a very good chance to win it all. But no one in Stillwater claimed a national title.
"Before the season started, we accepted what used to be the BCS," he says. "We said ... 'OK, we're in.' So whether it doesn't come out the way you wanted it or not, you still joined it. That was just my opinion."
In the end, and especially considering college football's history, what do we care? Whatever anyone thinks of the legitimacy of UCF's claim, it's harmless.
"It's not War and Peace," Aresco says — and a few hours later, he smiles and repeats himself: "It's not War and Peace."
Which brings us to this: What now? And what's next?
"I think eventually it winds down," Aresco says, "but we'll continue to have fun with it. But also people realize there's a case to be made for a team like that to be included in the Playoff. I think people realize they're a really good team. ... I hope the committee will be looking at the teams differently after this year."
Without backing away from anything, White notes some of the developments weren't pushed by the athletics department. He says, for example, that he was unaware a university police car would feature a national championship design until it was unveiled. And he says the focus within the athletics department has turned toward the 2018 season.
"Obviously, I can't control the chatter people generate outside of us," White says. "We're done with the campaign."
And when White is asked if that means a national title defense, he doesn't take the bait.
"We'd love to try to see," he says, "if we can't have another heck of a year."
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