Correction from the sports editor: Originally, my column stated that Alabama beat Clemson for the national title during the 2017 season, which was incorrect. Alabama actually topped Georgia, 26-23, in that year's CFP (and beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl). I regret the error.
The UCF Knights ruined college football for me.
Yes, you read that right.
The Knights that hail from Orlando’s University of Central Florida.
The Knights that helped produce NFL talents like Blake Bortles and Brandon Marshall.
The Knights that’ll forever be known as the unofficial 2017 National Champions.
Those UCF Knights, the lovable underdogs from the American Athletic Conference, forever tainted my view of college football.
And it’s not even their fault.
One of the most common criticisms of college football in recent memory, especially since the introduction of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014, is one we’ve all heard before: “The same teams win it every year.”
And it’s true.
In the seven seasons since college football shifted from the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era — where the two “best” teams at the end of the season, based on rankings, automatically played for a national title — to the CFP, there hasn’t been much parity.
The two powerhouses of college football, Alabama and Clemson, have made it to the CFP six out of its seven seasons, winning five of the seven possible national titles.
Just behind them are Ohio State (one title) and Oklahoma, each with four CFP appearances in seven years.
In total, out of a possible 28 open playoff spots since the CFP’s introduction, only 11 different teams have been selected for a shot at a championship, with 20 of those spots going to the aforementioned “Core Four” of the Crimson Tide, Tigers, Buckeyes and Sooners.
Only three non-Core-Four teams — Oregon (2014, lost), Georgia (2017, lost), LSU (2019, won) — have even played in the CFP National Championship Game.
Sure, getting to see Alabama vs. Clemson in the title game in January is always exciting, with both of them consistently being the best teams with the best players in the country.
But after a while, it gets old. It gets stale. It gets (insert whatever synonym for “sorta boring” that you’d like to use) ...
However, while I could sit here and write thousands upon thousands of words on the problems that a lack of parity present in any sport — and namely college sports — that’s not even the primary issue.
While it’s true that, yes, the Core Four have occupied 71% of all CFP spots since the format’s inception, the fact of the matter is that it’s not just a Core Four problem.
It’s a Power 5 problem.
In seven years, there’s never been a team selected to the CFP that wasn’t in a Power 5 conference — the term for the sport’s five biggest, most lucrative conferences: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — and that’s asinine.
All of that was a long-winded way for me to get back to the UCF Knights.
It’s a story any college football fan is familiar with, and probably annoyed by, at this point.
In 2017 — two years removed from 2015’s 0-12 season — UCF, lead by head coach Scott Frost, started what would become a 25-game winning streak by going 12-0 in the regular season.
When it came time to select the four teams to compete in the CFP, the UCF squad was left out, despite being the lone unbeaten team in the country. The CFP Selection Committee ranked them 12th, stuffing them behind five one-loss teams, five two-loss teams and even a three-loss Auburn team, all of which are members of Power 5 conferences (which UCF notably isn’t).
That postseason, the Knights found themselves playing in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta against that same Auburn team — which actually beat both Alabama and Georgia, the two teams that played for the CFP national title, that season — and, to many people’s surprise, the Knights won, 34-27.
That victory proved the Knights’ legitimacy and their ability to compete with top-10 teams from Power 5 conferences. And it also prompted the (somewhat meme-worthy, petty) claim that they were the 2017 National Champions — instead of the 13-1 Crimson Tide, who won the CFP National Championship Game against Georgia that season — thanks to their undefeated record.
Regardless of whether you legitimize the team’s national title claim, I think I speak for every college football fan when I say we were robbed of at least seeing how UCF performed in the CFP.
Some people say that it would have been a waste of a spot, that UCF would have gotten waxed by Clemson or Georgia or Alabama anyway, so who cares?
And maybe those people are right. But at least UCF would’ve had a chance.
The worst part of this story, however, comes with what happened next.
After the 13-0, Peach Bowl-winning “national championship” season, now led by new Head Coach Josh Heupel — after Frost took the job at his alma mater, Nebraska, during the offseason — UCF went and did it again.
After 12 games, they were still unbeaten, extending their overall winning streak to 25 games as if they were staring down the CFP Selection Committee and daring its members to select them.
And, again, they didn’t.
Those Knights ended up losing the Fiesta Bowl to LSU, 40-32, but after back-to-back undefeated seasons with no shot at a national title, things felt hopeless.
That’s exactly where we stand today.
After UCF’s stellar run that was met with disinterest by the Committee, it’s hard to take college football — namely, the CFP selection process — seriously anymore.
I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and, therefore, I’m a Tar Heel through-and-through. I also became a Florida Gators fan during the Tim Tebow era and have stuck with them ever since.
Both of my teams are in Power 5 conferences, and because of this, they’ll always have a shot.
Any given year, though it (sadly) hasn’t happened in the CFP era, I could watch my team play for a national title in January.
But let’s say I’m one of the 18,000-plus students at Appalachian State (Sun Belt Conference) or one of the 30,000-plus students at Florida Atlantic (Conference USA) or one of the 59,000-plus students at UCF, all of which have basically no shot — regardless of their record — to make it into the CFP.
What’s there to play for? What’s the point in watching? What’s the point in buying tickets to games?
Sure, you can watch your school beat its biggest rival, win its conference championship and, in rare cases, play in a major non-CFP bowl game, all of which are incredibly exciting.
But what’s the point when, at the end of the day, you have no chance to win the coveted CFP trophy and be declared the official National Champions?
Listen, I know I’m being a Negative Nancy.
I know college football, regardless of the 2017-18 UCF Knights, is still one of the most exhilarating sports on the planet.
The game-day atmosphere, the tailgating, the nail-biting games, the memorable moments, the top-10 clashes, the upsets and, of course, ESPN’s College GameDay itself, which fills my house with joy on Saturday mornings.
It all culminates in one of the most fantastic, unforgettable experiences you could ever have. And we’re lucky it happens every week during the fall.
Yet, after UCF had a shot at a national title stolen from them after winning 25 straight games a few years ago, there’s something about college football that just won’t sit right with me. At least until the current playoff format changes.
To quote ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit from a podcast interview he did earlier this week: “The postseason sucks, we have to fix it, it has to get better. (It’s) the best regular season and the worst postseason right now in sports.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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