Some people cheered it. Some people laughed at it. Some people were infuriated by it. But no one ignored it.
We are exactly two months away from the three-year anniversary of UCF’s National Championship claim after defeating Auburn in the Peach Bowl to finish as the only undefeated team in the nation. Something that started as a simple declaration from AD Danny White on the field after the game morphed into what has widely been acknowledged as one of the great sports marketing triumphs of the century.
The Knights’ brand exploded overnight, and even after Alabama won the College Football Playoff, UCF remained at the center of the college football world throughout the spring and summer as the debate that the program sparked raged on every day: Who is the real national champion?
The Knights obviously benefited heavily from claiming that championship and have ridden that success and brand awareness to three straight Top 25 seasons, with a very good chance to make it four straight by the end of 2020.
But UCF did a lot more than raise its own profile. It helped to correct one of the greatest injustices in sports history: The Power Five/Group of Five split. Of course, there have always been two tiers of conferences. In the old days under the BCS system, they were known as AQ conferences and non-AQ conferences.
But with the advent of the College Football Playoff, those labels were changed and the damage was done. People do judge a book by its cover. And the second that half of college football’s teams became known as “power” teams, the other half was immediately relegated to irrelevance. Teams like Boise State, TCU and Utah could once be ranked very high, be part of national championship conversations and receive national respect. In the new system, you’re worthless if you don’t belong to the Power Five.
But UCF changed that and beating Auburn wasn’t enough on its own. It was far from the first time that a mid-major had taken down a blue-blood power. The difference this time around was that the Knights didn’t settle. They wanted more. They demanded more. And by doing so, college football as a whole was forced to dwell on the idea that maybe conference affiliation isn’t all that goes into determining the talent of a team.
We are seeing that now more than ever.
In today’s AP Poll, 5-0 Cincinnati is ranked No. 6, which is where 13-0 UCF finished ranked after defeating Auburn. There are a total of seven Group of Five and independent teams scattered throughout the poll, and this is a direct result of the Knights forcing fans and media to view non-power teams in a different light.
Just take a look at the number of Non-AQ/Group of Five teams that finished ranked in the AP Top 25 each year of the last decade
- 2010: 5 teams
- 2011: 4 teams
- 2012: 4 teams
- Power Five becomes a widely used term
- 2013: 0 teams
- The conferences are officially split into the Power Five and the Group of Five
- 2014: 3 teams
- 2015: 3 teams
- 2016: 3 teams
- UCF claims a National Championship
- 2017: 4 teams
- 2018: 5 teams
- 2019: 7 teams
UCF’s claim has finally allowed so many underserved teams to be recognized. In 2014, Marshall started the season 11-0 and peaked in the AP Poll at just No. 18. The Thundering Herd are currently 5-0 and already at No. 16.
Coastal Carolina, a squad still fairly new to FBS, is now up to No. 15 in the polls thanks to a 6-0 start. In 2016, Western Michigan was ranked at No. 24 with the same record.
Back in 2017, the Knights were 12-0 heading into the Peach Bowl with three Top 25 wins – and were only No. 10 in the AP Poll, a spot lower from where 7-0 BYU (with zero ranked wins) is currently sitting.
Cincinnati, which is currently 5-0, is even ranked higher than UCF was after the Knights recorded their 25th straight win in 2018.
A pair of early-season stumbles have kept UCF from joining the party so far. But with two decisive wins in a row and a date with the Bearcats looming, the Knights have everything they need to reestablish themselves as one of the top teams in the nation.
It’s only right that they should rejoin the rankings in a year where so many programs are newly in the spotlight thanks to that “ridiculous” claim from three years ago.