When the college football season began, the Central Florida Knights had 12 games on their schedule and no votes in either the Associated Press or coaches’ poll. So even as they endured preseason practices and prepared for what was a potentially exciting year, the most honest among the Knights had to know: Before a snap was taken, they had zero chance at appearing in the College Football Playoff, the championship format for its level of play.
Now, UCF has one more game on its schedule. It could beat Memphis in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship game 82-0, thus finishing an unbeaten season, and there’s no path in. To half the teams that play college football at its highest level — the 65 who aren’t in a so-called “Power Five” conference — the doors aren’t just shut; they’re locked, deadbolted.
“All you can do is beat the teams that are on your schedule,” UCF Coach Scott Frost told reporters Saturday, after the Knights closed their regular season with what, for them, amounted to a nail-biter: a 49-42 victory over South Florida. “... We’re not going to talk too much about who we’ve beat and how dominant we are.”
Put aside the most pressing issue surrounding Frost’s program — which is Frost’s future there — and forget that Hurricane Irma cost the Knights what might have been their best win, a game against Georgia Tech that was canceled.
The salient points are these: Central Florida, which won its 11 regular-season games by an average of nearly 26 points, could have won those games by 36 or 46 points, and it would not have had a shot. Central Florida, which led the nation in scoring at 48.3 points per game, could have scored 68.3 points per game, and it would not have had a shot.
And, most important: This isn’t about Central Florida in 2017, or even about, say, Western Michigan in 2016. It’s about the Mid-American Conference team that goes unbeaten in 2018, and the Mountain West team that follows a year later.
They have no shot.
That there are injustices in college football is, of course, not news, and it’s possible we will be hearing from some of the nation’s most prominent programs — Alabama or Southern Cal or Notre Dame or all of the above — about how they were jobbed this year, depending on the outcomes of the conference championship games over the coming weekend.
But the schools that actually are getting jobbed as winter begins are those that don’t have a chance before the season starts.
Go back to what would seem like a trivial point: Central Florida received zero votes in either the preseason AP poll of writers or the preseason coaches’ poll. Neither poll determines which four teams ultimately gain entry in the College Football Playoff, because that’s up to a committee. And yet, those polls provide a baseline, one that can’t be re-established during a season, even as sands begin to shift.
Take the team UCF beat in its regular season finale, South Florida. The Bulls were coming off an 11-2 season that concluded with a victory over South Carolina in the (ahem) Birmingham Bowl. The Bulls were coming off a season that propelled then-head coach Willie Taggart to the top job at Oregon. The Bulls were coming off a season in which they finished ranked 19th in the nation by the AP.
And so, with former Texas coach Charlie Strong taking over for Taggart, the Bulls appeared ready to roll. They were rewarded for their previous season with the No. 19 ranking in the preseason AP poll.
Why does this matter? Because if that had been UCF ranked 19th in the preseason, maybe — maybe — the Knights might have risen in the AP poll higher than their current 12th. And that might have — might have — pushed them closer to the edges of the top four in the final CFP rankings.
A year ago, Western Michigan was in that same situation: zero votes in the preseason, 13 straight wins including the MAC title game, a ranking of 12th by the AP after that finish — and yet, just 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings.
This is silly, of course, because how a team is ranked in the preseason is at worst completely arbitrary and at best an educated guess. Either way, it should have absolutely no impact on whether a team is a contender for the playoff — or even have an impact on the quality of bowl it can go to.
(Want to argue that writers or coaches actually know what’s going on in August? Florida State began the season ranked third in both polls. The Seminoles must beat Louisiana Monroe to pull back to 6-6 for the season and — get this — be eligible to play in the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl. Merry Christmas from Shreveport!)
An issue: Scheduling. No, the Knights don’t really have a signature nonconference victory, even though they crushed Maryland 38-10 in College Park. But trying to schedule a meaningful nonconference win must happen four or five — or more — years beforehand, when college football schedules are formed. It’s not the Knights’ fault that the Terrapins (sorry, Terps fans) stunk this year, nor is it the Knights’ fault that their Georgia Tech game was wiped out, nor was it Western Michigan’s fault that it beat two Big Ten teams last year — Northwestern and Illinois — that combined to go a mediocre 10-15.
Still, Wisconsin won’t be penalized for its schedule, even though its nonconference foes were Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU. Forget how many years out those deals were made. That’s not even trying — yet the Badgers will make the playoff if they beat Ohio State on Saturday.
Now, this isn’t saying that Central Florida is better than Wisconsin. But it is saying we’ll never know.