ORLANDO, Fla. — UCF keeps winning, but it can’t really win — not with its growing chorus of critics, not with Power 5 football fans outside Orlando and probably not with the College Football Playoff selection committee.
The undefeated Knights opened at No. 12 in the committee’s initial rankings — six spots ahead of where they started last year — and once again face nearly impossible odds to make the top four. While UCF expected as much, what it didn’t expect was for the negativity directed at the program to seemingly increase. In college basketball, UCF would be Loyola-Chicago. In college football, UCF is Darth Vader.
Of course, the people at UCF do not see themselves as villains. At 7-0 with a 20-game win streak headed into Thursday night’s game against Temple (7:30 p.m., ESPN), they believe they have the quintessential underdog story: a team relatively new on the college football stage that has only in recent years lived up to its sleeping giant moniker. UCF has won New Year’s Six games in two of the past four seasons, and though self-declaring a national championship after going undefeated in 2017 was unconventional, it got the entire nation talking. It also put a bull’s-eye on the Knights’ backs.
All that chatter continues, but the debate is no longer about national championships. Rather, it is about where exactly UCF belongs as the wins continue to pile up. For a school that has no real entry point into the playoff, what can it possibly do to change the growing narrative that it will never deserve a spot in the top four?
“It’s probably forcing people that maybe were ignoring us before to really listen to what we’re saying and hopefully start to realize that we have a system that doesn’t make any sense,” UCF athletic director Danny White said in a recent interview. “I keep saying the same thing over and over again, but it’s the only sport in America that’s not settled on the field. What are we doing? It’s not that complicated to expand the playoff and make it a real national championship.”
Josh Heupel jumped into the fray this season as the first-year head coach at UCF, inheriting an undefeated team and, with it, the pressure-filled task of finding a way to keep the wins coming. Most first-year coaches get some leeway as they work to rebuild failed programs.
But given what UCF did last season and what UCF returned this season, including starting QB McKenzie Milton, Heupel entered a job with a high degree of difficulty. Only four coaches in FBS history have gone undefeated in their first seasons as head coaches. The most recent team to go undefeated in consecutive seasons was Nebraska in 1994-95.
“College football is about finding a way to go 1-0 every week. That’s what championship teams do,” Heupel said. “There’s a really hard element to doing that. That’s why it doesn’t happen very often in college football. The past national champions, there haven’t been a bunch of them that have been undefeated through the course of a season. There’s something special to what’s happened here in the past. It’s our job to continue to go do that every week.”
Heupel and his new staff met with the leaders of the team in January and made sure to involve them at every step. The scheme on defense is new, too, and players needed to learn to trust their new coaches as the offseason wore on.
“Right when Coach Heupel got here, he met with a lot of the seniors. He asked us what we liked and what we didn’t like and what we thought was successful last year, and we told him, and he’s done a great job of carrying that over to this year and keeping a lot of stuff the same from last year,” defensive tackle Joey Connors said. “The older guys, the juniors and seniors, one of our goals is we want to keep the culture around, the same culture, and that’s one of our goals is culture keepers. We stress that hard.”
Inevitably, the discussion rarely focuses on what UCF has done. The discussion always focuses on what UCF has not done — namely, play a challenging schedule.
Frankly, the numbers regarding the schedule are not kind to the Knights. According to ESPN Stats & Info, UCF’s strength of schedule is No. 127 out of 130 FBS teams. The lowest-ranked Power 5 team is Syracuse at No. 74, 53 spots ahead of UCF. None of UCF’s FBS opponents have posted winning records. Its toughest games remain, with regular-season games against Cincinnati and USF and a potential conference title matchup with Houston, three teams that are currently a combined 21-3. Still, UCF cannot change its conference affiliation, and White and Heupel don’t think the conference gets enough credit to begin with.
“When I was on the outside and looking at this league, half of these teams were in a league that got automatic bids in the old system, right?” Heupel said, referring to the American Athletic Conference folding in teams from the old Big East, which got an automatic qualifier bid to New Year’s Six games under the BCS system.
“There’s a lot of really good football teams in this league that can go play with anyone any Saturday, with any team in the country,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the nonconference schedule to understand that. Coming into this league, I have a great amount of respect for it. The champion deserves an opportunity that anyone else would get in college football.”
Since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, the committee has repeatedly said that strength of schedule is a major factor in its rankings. That includes strong nonconference scheduling.
The past two seasons, critics have poked fun at UCF’s nonconference schedule. It’s just bad luck that it had a game against a Power 5 opponent canceled because of a hurricane in consecutive seasons (Georgia Tech in 2017 and North Carolina in 2018). But there’s also twisted logic involved. This season, UCF beat Pitt 45-14, while undefeated Notre Dame beat Pitt 19-14. Offering that score comparison gets UCF fans shouted down.
White remains resolute in his belief that trying to schedule home-and-home games against Power 5 opponents is the best way to go. He does not have much interest in going on the road or playing at a neutral site for a one-off game against a marquee opponent.
“What we’re not going to do is start scheduling unintelligently,” White said. “I can’t get too many people to play us — period. I wish I would have scheduled a whole lot more games out in the future before we went undefeated last year. It’s really hard to get games scheduled, and I’m not going to call anybody out because I get where they’re coming from. I’m not going to put our kids through a brutal four-game nonconference schedule playing in a bunch of buy games with referees from the opposing conferences.
“If you look at the stats, the visiting team never wins that game. There’s a lot of reasons why. I can’t build a home fan base doing that. Our season-ticket base is exploding. It’s not in our long-term best interest of our program, but it’s also not fair to our kids because these historic name-brand football programs, they’re not doing that. They’re playing some manageable games in nonconference, and the kids can get up for the two or three big games they have in conference.”
UCF is not a name-brand football program, but the biggest issue is it doesn’t play in a Power 5 conference, so the rules are different — fair or not. That means UCF gets judged more harshly for its nonconference schedule than, say, Alabama because the overall degree of difficulty in Alabama’s conference schedule is exponentially greater.
That is why Boise State went out and played neutral-site games against programs such as Virginia Tech and Georgia right around the time its program was surging the way UCF is now. Yet if you look at it from White’s perspective, none of that helped Boise State when it came to playing for national championships.
Since the BCS formed in 1998, 13 teams from conferences outside the Power 5 structure have gone unbeaten in the regular season. None played for a national title. White has his own plans to keep building the UCF football program in Orlando, including expanding the stadium. If playing buy and neutral-site games hasn’t made much of a difference in the past, why would it now?
Still, there is progress, albeit incremental. At No. 12, the Knights are also the highest Group of 5 team in the initial rankings since they began in 2014.
And if you’re looking for numbers to back up the Knights’ case, ESPN’s Strength of Record — which measures the chance that an average Top 25 team would match a team’s record, given its schedule — ranks UCF fifth since the start of the 2017 season. The only four teams ahead? Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma, last year’s four playoff squads.
Despite that and the fact that CFP executive director Bill Hancock said last month that there is a path for UCF to make the playoff, chaos would need to happen for it to become reality. The system is set up to favor programs from Power 5 conferences. Especially when there are only four spots for 10 total conferences and Notre Dame.
“Is there hope?” Heupel asks. “Absolutely. We’ll let the season continue to play out.”