Knighting our national champion

Our state is the epicenter of the college football world right now, so we’re going to throw our hat into the ring. Fayette Newspapers is naming Central Florida as our college football national champion.

The odds are extremely high that you had never heard of Central Florida, or UCF, before a couple weeks ago. All season long, as they rolled up win after win, the Knights battled for any sort of national respect. They racked up 12 wins through the regular season and a conference championship.

They added the icing on top with a 13th win in the Peach Bowl over Auburn, the same team that was good enough to beat both teams in the “real” national title game. With that, the Knights decided they were tired of waiting on respect to come to them. They decided they are the champs, and why not? They’re the only undefeated team. They won every game by at least seven points. They beat the best team the NCAA threw at them. They even got a celebratory championship parade at nearby Walt Disney World out of it.

Claiming disputed national championships is a tradition nearly as old as the NCAA making gobs of money off of amateur athletes. Pull up the wikipedia page for “college football national championships” and you’ll see more often than not that multiple teams claim titles. As recently as 2003, we had official split champions with LSU winning the BCS crown and USC finishing number one in AP polling. Earlier this year, Oklahoma State retroactively named themselves the 1945 champion, even putting a sign up at their stadium, despite the fact that for 71 years Army had been considered the champ by everyone else. Alabama has several disputed crowns of their own, including a couple where they didn’t even manage to win their bowl game.

Georgia’s coach Kirby Smart admitted it was a smart move.

“If I were UCF, I’d probably do the same thing,” Smart told reporters leading up to his title game.

Alabama’s Nick Saban didn’t fault them either.

“I’m fine with it. They should be proud of it,” he said, adding it “doesn’t mean anything but to them.”

As earth is the only realm known to play football (and as the only top-level unbeaten team this year), perhaps UCF should aim even higher and call themselves Masters of the Universe. (Illustration by Matthew Dunn)

The main criticism is that the Knights played a weaker schedule. The Big 12’s commissioner even went on record say as much. It’s true, but not the whole truth. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn to say that UCF would love to get a chance to play in a “big boy” conference, but they’re not just giving those tickets away every day. They try to schedule Power 5 schools often too (Georgia Tech was on the schedule this year, but that was scuttled by a hurricane), but when a team gets good, an SEC school may no longer want to risk giving them a handsome pay day to not beat them by 60 points. The thought of playing a quality team like UCF is going to scare them off when they can just as easily schedule an automatic victory.

As a fun aside, in a history of playing bigger schools as often as possible, UCF actually beat both Alabama and Georgia the last times they played each other. Realistically, UCF would have a 2-0 all-time record against the Bulldogs if not for a penalty flag in 1999 that even Larry Munson said was bogus.

The reason to name UCF the national champion is to point out just a very small portion of the NCAA’s inconsistencies or hypocrisies.

If a non-Power 5 team is not eligible to play for a national title, then say that. Put it in the by-laws. Give them their own championship to play for. Don’t pretend they possibly have a chance.

North Dakota State has won six of the last seven titles at the FCS level, but they’re split off in a separate level. They’ve not been lied to and told they’re eligible to play for the top level crown.

Tradition of a program isn’t supposed to matter in a given season, but it clearly does to the folks selecting the four playoff teams. Alabama certainly did not face the toughest schedule, facing just four ranked teams before the playoffs, and they didn’t play for their conference crown, but they got in because they are (rightfully so) held up as a perennial powerhouse. Taken purely on a season-by-season case, I think you might have left Bama out of the final four. UCF played a perfect season in 2017, not over the course of their program’s history, and it wasn’t enough to get a seat at the table.

Playoffs are good enough to settle titles in every other sport fielded in the country. Playoffs are good enough to settle the champion in every single other level of college football. So why is FBS special? Money. Plain and simple. They don’t want to risk messing with the cash cow. There is so much money to be gleaned from the million bowl games that they think might not be there from sponsors for a playoff game held on a college campus.

That argument doesn’t even make sense to me. The current bowl system leaves us with mounds of Autonation Cure Bowls and Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowls and Wonder Bread Loaf Bowls and Big Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowls (only one of those is made up).

A larger playoff just makes more must-watch bowl games. Would you rather watch another a bowl between the WAC and the MAC on December 16 or feast on more games between heavyweights? As a fan of a team who competes for those lower rung of bowls, even I’m okay with it. When everyone gets a bowl, they don’t mean nearly as much.

Maybe a cinderella team makes a run to a national title, but odds are you’ll end up with a similar champ. And you know what? That’s awesome. How much fun do you have watching college basketball’s March Madness just hoping for upsets? The best part of the tournament to a lot of folks are watching those opening round games. The big money is there for every single tournament game, not just the last four teams.

I won’t be totally unfair and not offer up a solution. As much fun as it would be to have a larger playoff like in FCS (formerly 1-AA), you don’t even have to go that far to satisfy most people. I’m not coming up with anything original, but it seems like an easy fix would be expanding the playoff to eight teams.

The plan could be simple. The first five spots go to the champions of the Power Five conferences. If a Group of Five school finishes undefeated, they deserve a spot. That leaves you two at-large teams (and three when there’s no qualifying Group of Five team). Those can go to the teams that may have slipped up and did not have win their conference, but are still good enough to have a shot at the crown. No need to make specific accommodations for Notre Dame. You know if there’s a season they’re decent enough, the polls will rank them more than high enough to squeeze them into one of those spots.

Under that model, this year you would’ve started with Clemson (ACC champs), Oklahoma (Big 12), Georgia (SEC), Ohio State (Big 10), and USC (Pac 12). Next comes UCF. In the two at-large spots, I’d put Alabama and Wisconsin, the two highest ranked teams left that did not win their conference.

I think it’d be pretty hard to argue with that setup. UCF would have gotten the chance they justifiably craved to show they belonged in the discussion of the best teams. They probably wouldn’t have won it all, but maybe they would have. It would’ve been exciting to find out for sure. Let’s not settle these disputes in paper polls, let’s determine the champion on the field.

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Fayette Newspapers  - 210 Jeff Davis Place, P.O. Box 96 Fayetteville, GA 30214 - (770) 461-6317 • To access legal notices visit http://www.georgiapublicnotice.com/.