ORLANDO — Whatever you believe about UCF, Thursday night confirmed it.
If you think the College Football Playoff system jobbed the Knights last year and will job them again if they go undefeated for a second consecutive season, then you watched their 21st consecutive win and got preemptively mad for Tuesday—when UCF will appear nowhere near the top four of the selection committee’s rankings.
If you think UCF is propped up by a weak schedule and would be merely mediocre against a Power Five conference schedule, then you probably watched Temple rack up 670 yards in a 52–40 Knights win and did some extrapolating about how that would work out against the offenses from Syracuse or Missouri or Purdue.
Both sides are so thoroughly dug in that it doesn’t matter what the Knights do at this point. One group of college football fans will believe UCF is perpetually screwed because of its conference membership, and one group of college football fans will believe UCF is racking up wins against lesser competition and offering no actual basis for comparison to the Power Five teams that aspire to make the playoff. Neither side will be completely wrong or completely correct. They’ll just stand on their poles and yell at one another.
The truth? UCF’s offense is great, and quarterback McKenzie Milton probably deserves to sit next to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray in New York in December. He turns plays that would end in sacks for other quarterbacks into first downs and touchdowns. The Knights are so fast at tailback and receiver that few defenses in the country could slow the offense for a prolonged period. Tailback Greg McCrae carried 16 times for 188 yards and a touchdown. “They need to bring back the NCAA video game so I can play as Greg McCrae,” Milton said. “His speed should be 95.” Cracked McCrae: “Ninety-nines across the board.”
Temple’s defense entered Thursday ranked No. 4 in the nation in yards per play allowed at 4.2. Thursday, UCF averaged 8.3 yards a play. The Knights nearly doubled what every other offense has done to Temple.
That’s the good news. Here’s the bad.
UCF’s defense is troubling. Since we compared how UCF’s offense performed against the season average of Temple’s defense, it’s only fair to compare how UCF’s defense performed against the season average of Temple’s offense. Entering Thursday, Temple’s offense ranked No. 96 in the nation in yards per play at 5.4. Thursday, the Owls averaged 6.8 yards a play for the game and 8.6 a play in the first half. If the Knights wind up facing Houston and electric quarterback D’Eriq King in the American Athletic Conference title game and play the way they did Thursday on defense, they’ll see that winning streak broken in a game that will start on the afternoon of Dec. 1 and end a few minutes before the selection committee announces the playoff participants the next morning.
The positive UCF can take away on that side of the ball is that the Knights allowed only six second-half points and finally began slowing Temple quarterback Anthony Russo following a diving Nevelle Clark interception early in the third quarter. The defense also stood tall when it stuffed a fourth-quarter two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the score at 42.
The Knights couldn’t really feel safe until about the five-minute mark. That’s when the crowd at Spectrum Stadium rose to celebrate a stop, causing the erector-set structure to bounce and shake the press box that bears the words 2017 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS.
Does that claim make you mad? Does it make you smile? There are so many strong opinions about that boast that the debate still rages nearly 10 months after last season ended. Not the debate about who actually won the national title. Everyone knows that was Alabama. The argument is about whether UCF has any right to make the claim. The answer, of course, is yes. This is America. Anyone can claim anything. I can claim I’m the sexiest man in America even though I’m certain my friends at People—who are the equivalent of the CFP selection committee on that particular matter—would certainly disagree.
That’s what makes UCF athletic director Danny White’s decision to go all-in on the national title claim such an ingenious move. You may hate it, and you may hate UCF for it. But love it or hate it, you have a strong opinion about UCF. How many strong opinions do you have about Fresno State? About Houston? About Toledo? You care about UCF, even if you feel negatively about the Knights. You know who they are, and that matters a lot to them. Brand awareness is half the battle, and White has done more in months to conquer that half than most ADs at that level do in their entire careers.
Should UCF be seriously considered for the playoff? Maybe. But it won’t be. Not in this system. So the Knights will just keep playing.
“I’m not even concerned about that right now,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “It’s our job to go 1–0 every week. If you can do that in college football, you probably deserve to go play for something special at the end.”
Said Milton: “We want to get the respect of the teams that we’re playing. It’s not voters. When they leave, we want them to say ‘That’s a damn good football team we just played.’”
Should the Knights win their next three games (Navy, Cincinnati, at South Florida) and the likely title game matchup with Houston such a scenario would create, they probably won’t fulfill Heupel’s wish. They’ll definitely fulfill Milton’s.