In case you haven’t heard by now, the UCF football team is the latest “outsider” team to throw a wrench into the National Championship picture.
They were undefeated going into the bowl season, but the Playoff Committee decided that one-loss Power Five teams would be better than an undefeated Group of Five team. In fact, the selection committee placed UCF behind squads with two or even three losses, as the Knights never finished higher than 12th in the Committee Poll.
The resultant final poll, which created the situation we’re talking about now ad nauseum, placed a three-loss Auburn (who would eventually lose to UCF in the Peach Bowl) at seventh in the nation. Certainly, one could argue it was a valid ranking given their losses were to mostly Top 5 squads in conference play, but even still, something doesn’t feel right about placing the country’s only undefeated team five places below a team of that caliber.
The precedent has been set over the last three years in terms of how the Committee views the Group of Five.
Western Michigan endured the under-ranking phenomenon last year and had to fend off ranked one-and-two loss Group of Five squads for the right to play Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl Classic. In 2015, a 12-1 Houston Cougars squad was ranked 18th by the Committee Poll going into the Peach Bowl (four spots below its AP ranking at the time) despite three wins over Top 25 squads and marquee wins over Power Fives Louisville on the road and Vanderbilt at home in the non-conference season. 2014 saw 11-2 Boise State lumped in with various three or four loss Power Five Squads at 20th in the Committee Poll as the only Group of Five representative, but the final AP Poll had Boise as the highest G5 at 16th, in front of Marshall and Memphis.
The argument primarily used against a team like UCF is their schedule. Eight of their games are dictated by the fact that they play in a conference which many prognosticators already percieve as “inferior.” So that leaves the other four games, which are never guarantees. Many of these non-conference schedules are set up at least three to five years in advance, if not longer out. And that fact is assuming a school doesn’t buy out a game.
Even if a team schedules “tough,” the goalposts get moved again. Let’s say Eastern Michigan ends up scheduling Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn and Texas five years from now (which is highly likely) and they end up running the table but two of those four teams have off years. The conversation will go along the lines of “well, they did beat those two teams but those two teams had an off year” and they will still be excluded because they “didn’t play anyone else.”
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby essentially said as much this week when discussing UCF’s ultimate exclusion from the playoff in comments to the media, citing that UCF’s ultimate flaw was (essentially) not playing in a Power Five conference.
That ultimately brings us to a pivotal question: How can you call it a national championship when circumstances automatically eliminate half of the teams right off the bat?
There’s no easy answer here, at least immediately. But what are some potential solutions?
Expand the Playoff
This seems to be the most common answer. While that would be nice, I don’t think they will expand it enough to keep the highest rank G5 team. Consider this year, with UCF ranked 12. The most common number for expansion is 8 teams which probably wouldn’t include a G5 team. In order to do that, you would need 16 teams and that likely only include one G5 team. This situation, of course, assumes they don’t give an automatic qualifying slot to a G5 team, which they begrudingly do in the current system for a New Year’s Six bowl bid.
Use the Conference Playoffs to Feed into the Championship
That would mean expansion to 10 teams. The first controversy would be determining the bye teams and determining the teams that have to play in. And you still have the problem stated above of, “well, they didn’t play anyone”, which doesn’t particularly solve any issues currently faced. Though, on paper, it’s certainly the fairest and maybe the most fun, way to go about fixing it.
Go back to the Polls and Computer Rankings
If there’s one thing that can be said in a positive light about the old computer polls, they tended to give Group of Five more of the benefit of the doubt. A return to this method with modifications to keep the Playoff in place could be a potential solution to all this mess. Of course, this would really eliminate the purpose of the Committee all together (unless you make the AP, Coaches and Computer composite polls as “reviewable factors”) and that just won’t do, will it?
Stay where we are
This is probably what’s going to happen. Just look at the controversy being created. Controversy generates clicks which is what the big guys are after, whether we like it or not. I mean, we’ve already spent 800-plus words on the subject as it is.
So I say let UCF have their parade. Put up the banner at the stadium. They’ve earned it by controlling everything they could control and then some. They can’t control the panel of East German judges on the CFP committee. They can’t even control what happens with the polls (although those don’t really seem to matter anymore).
All UCF, or any other G5 can do is win, and if the committee doesn’t see UCF’s performance for what it is, perhaps we’ve lost the true spirit of the game for good.