Opinion: UCF Shows Need for Expanded Playoff

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Copyright 2018 The Florida Times-Union

Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)


I've never been a proponent of college football expanding to an 8-team playoff. My belief has been the current system generally provides fair access to a championship for all legitimate contenders, without putting the players through a taxing postseason gauntlet.

UCF and the excluded 13-0 Knights have forced me to call an audible. It's time for the College Football Playoff gatekeepers to open their minds and create a path to the trophy for non-Power 5 teams, especially when they rise to perfection like UCF.

The way the Knights were so easily dismissed all season by the elitist CFP selection committee is a travesty that can't, and shouldn't, be repeated. If 10th-ranked UCF's 34-27 Peach Bowl win over No. 7 Auburn didn't at least open people's eyes to consider inviting Cinderella to college football's biggest postseason party, then maybe what's needed is a housecleaning of the sport's power structure.

"There's always going to be a part of you that you're mad we didn't get selected for the playoffs," said UCF freshman running back and University Christian product Otis Anderson, who scored on a 12-yard TD reception in the third quarter to propel the Knights to victory. "Another part says there's no more for us to do. We won every game.

"So [the CFP committee] can either continue to have a biased look or start to give the Group of 5 teams a chance and make a change."

Unfortunately, with ESPN's $7.2 billion contract taking the current format through 2026, it's going to take an extraordinary set of circumstances - a combination of low TV ratings, money-grab potential and public outcry - to convince the Power 5 suits in charge to provide access for members outside their convienently-crafted cartel.

Obviously, no Group of 5 team is ever going to be selected in a four-team CFP format. After going 12-0, and beating two respectable AAC opponents in South Florida and Memphis, the highest CFP ranking the Knights reached was No. 12. There were six multiple-loss teams ahead of them at the time, including three-loss Auburn at No. 7.

Does that mean UCF should have been ranked in the top-4? Probably not, but after beating an Auburn team that had already defeated two SEC opponents playing in Monday night's national championship game in Alabama and Georgia, it raises the question of whether the Power 5 outsiders like UCF are being treated fairly.

The response ESPN's Heather Dinsch got from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, defending that UCF was given a fair shake even after beating Auburn, illustrates why college football has to take a hard look at its flawed system.

"It's fair because playing in the American Athletic is not the same as playing in the Big Ten or the SEC or the Big 12, it's just not," Bowlsby said. "They have some big games, but they don't have an Iowa State who can beat a second-ranked Oklahoma. The depth of those [Group of 5] leagues and the quality at the top, getting ready for one game against Auburn, that's a lot different than playing Auburn every week... . .

"TCU, if TCU and UCF played 10 times, I defy anyone to convince me that UCF would win the majority of the games. Of course, I've only been looking at it for 35 years."

Bowlsby is correct about the difference in depth of the Power 5 leagues. Nobody would argue that point.

But the tone and arrogance directed toward UCF's 2017 season underscores the problem of a non-inclusive system.

Without an eight-team playoff, the UCFs of the world will never be given a chance at the big prize. And even with eight slots, it's probably a long shot at best that one of them gets in.

So here's what college football should do to give the little guy a chance to dream big, the same way Butler, VCU and Xavier can realistically challenge the basketball bluebloods during March Madness.

Expand to eight teams, giving each Power 5 league champion an automatic bid and reserve the other three at-large spots for the highest-ranked teams. However, as a caveat, the highest ranked Group of 5 team gets one of those at-large spots providing it has no losses to a Group of 5 opponent and is ranked in the CFP top 15.

Since the top Power 5 teams will rarely schedule a UCF, Boise State, Houston or any well-established program in the Group of 5, this provision means any non-Power 5 school invited to an 8-team CFP would have to put together a perfect season and likely dominate all of its opponents.

Obviously, fans of the No. 8-ranked Power 5 school who gets left out of the CFP to accommodate a lower-ranked Group of 5 team will scream bloody murder about being excluded.

Well, so what? Every year, Power 5 basketball schools are excluded from the NCAA Tournament because champions of about 20 lesser-caliber, one-bid leagues earn an automatic bid.

Yet you don't hear anyone complaining about that process because, in hoops, Cinderella stories blossom every year. Somebody not deemed worthy to compete with the big boys makes a run to the Sweet 16 and everybody embraces it.

Sure, it's easier to accommodate the little guy in a 68-team NCAA Tournament instead of an eight-team football playoff. But what UCF showed the country - even with the awkward process of lame-duck coach Scott Frost (now at Nebraska) still guiding the Knights against Auburn - is there are exceptions to conventional football thinking about which league has a legitimate national contender.

And to narrow-minded gatekeepers like Bowlsby who insist otherwise, the obvious response is this: How do you know until you play the game? Or how do you know until a Power 5 team agrees to even schedule a home-and-home with the UCFs?

Please spare me the idiotic, naïve argument that Auburn didn't play hard or want to win as badly as the Knights. The Tigers and quarterback Jarrett Stidham rallied in the third quarter to take a 20-13 lead, and celebrated accordingly.

There's been a mixed reaction to UCF's decision to declaring itself the "national champion," an idea that has been ridiculed by some on social media. But it's no more ridiculous than the Knights being ostracized by college football elitists for daring to question a system that practices blatant discrimination.

"If we had lost to Auburn, they would have said, 'Oh, [UCF] had a nice season, but they couldn't play with the SEC,' " Anderson said. "Now that we've basically slayed the dragon, it showed we can play with anyone. And if enough fans try to push the issue to get in people's ear, sooner or later, maybe the 8-team playoff will happen."

More importantly, maybe the next perfect UCF team that turns college football on its ear will get a seat at the CFP table.

Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

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January 17, 2018


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