Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Colleges

Like it or not, strength of schedule an issue for Group of Five teams

After staying relatively quiet about a system stacked against it, UCF started to speak out about the College Football Playoff after capping off its perfect season with a Peach Bowl victory.

"Only thing we can do is keep winning games, and I don’t think we have any more games left to win," standout linebacker and Lakewood High alumnus Shaquem Griffin told reporters after a New Year’s Day win over Auburn. "I guess to the (selection) committee, it’s just what more can we do?"

Nothing. And that’s the problem.

While the four-team CFP is an improvement over the two-team BCS, it puts Group of Five teams at an almost insurmountable disadvantage. As a result, the Knights — the first Division I-A team to finish undefeated since 2013 Florida State — won’t win a national championship. They won’t earn a split title with the winner of Monday’s Alabama-Georgia game, either, no matter how hard UCF fans and administrators lobby for it.

Aside from a perfect record, the Knights’ best argument centers on four-loss Auburn. The Knights beat the Tigers 34-27. Georgia and ’Bama lost to Auburn by double digits, so UCF has a transitive win over both College Football Playoff finalists.

Too bad it’s not that simple.

Georgia avenged its loss to Auburn by beating the Tigers in the SEC title game, at the same neutral site (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) that hosted the Peach Bowl. UCF won by seven and was outgained 421-411; Georgia won by 17 and amassed 192 more yards than the Tigers.

Losses matter in the College Football Playoff era — just ask Ohio State — but wins matter, too.

"UCF is an excellent team," CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN on Tuesday, "but you still have to take into account who each team played and defeated during the regular season."

That’s where UCF’s case begins to crack.

RELATED: Think UCF deserves national title consideration? Think again

The Knights beat only one team ranked in the top 30 nationally in the Sagarin ratings’ analytics: Auburn. ’Bama beat four, including three (Clemson, LSU and Florida State) by double digits. Georgia’s resume had three top-10 wins plus No. 17 Mississippi State.

UCF’s average opponent was ranked No. 81 by Sagarin. That’s significantly worse than Georgia (50) and ’Bama (58).

Even UCF’s non-conference schedule lagged behind ’Bama and Georgia, thanks to bad luck.

The Knights scheduled two Power Five opponents. One (Maryland) had an injury epidemic and finished 4-8; the other (Georgia Tech) was canceled because of Hurricane Irma. ’Bama, meanwhile, beat FSU and 10-win Fresno State, while Georgia knocked off 10-3 Notre Dame and crushed the rival Yellow Jackets, both on the road.

While the Peach Bowl bolstered UCF’s case, the rest of the bowl season hurt it. The Knights’ next-best opponent (Memphis) lost in its home stadium to 8-5 Iowa State. UCF’s third-best foe, USF, needed a last-gasp touchdown to beat 6-7 Texas Tech in Birmingham.

None of this is meant to take away from UCF’s season. It’s extremely hard to go undefeated, in any sport, at any level. Scott Frost backed up his national coach of the year honors by remarkably balancing his new job at Nebraska with beating the SEC West champions.

This isn’t meant to blame UCF, either. Griffin and the Knights can only play who’s on their schedule — and upgrading that is a major challenge, as big-name Power Five teams seem reluctant to play the Group of Five’s best.

Maybe UCF’s season and another SEC vs. SEC championship game will be enough to change the system. Expanding the playoff to eight and guaranteeing a spot for the best Group of Five champion will eliminate any future debate and help the next UCF.

But until that happens, there’s nothing Griffin and his teammates can do.

Except enjoy the best season in school history.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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