Lane Kiffin: UCF looks like high-end SEC team but it is losing 'name game'

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Few are more qualified than Lane Kiffin to execute the college football eyeball test. He’s been an assistant coach on two of this generation’s defining juggernauts – Pete Carroll’s USC teams and Nick Saban’s Alabama teams – and has served as a head coach in the Pac-12, SEC and NFL.

Count Kiffin among the many people baffled at the lack of respect that No. 15 UCF has received in the polls in the wake the Knights’ 45-27 victory over Stanford on Saturday. The Knights eviscerated the Cardinal, leading 38-7 at halftime, forcing three-and-outs on the first three possessions and gaining 545 yards.

The victory improved UCF to 28-1 the past three seasons, as impressive of a run as any program in recent college football history. That included a blowout of Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic team in Week 2.

Kiffin said he’d rank the Knights somewhere between No. 5 and No. 10. He also said he’d consider them a “playoff team” if star quarterback McKenzie Milton was healthy. He couldn’t understand why UCF has stagnated in the polls over the first month, as UCF is No. 15 in the Associated Press poll and No. 16 in the Coaches Poll.

“It’s such a name game,” Kiffin said of the rankings. “People rank teams on the history of the program way too much instead of looking at the quality of the work.”

UCF’s last regular season chance to prove themselves against a so-called power conference team comes this weekend at Pittsburgh. The Knights blasted Pitt, 45-14, last year and watched Pitt win the ACC Coastal division.

While UCF could potentially face better teams this season – Temple, Cincinnati and perhaps Memphis in the AAC title game – this Pitt game looms large in a perception war that UCF is losing convincingly.

“It just seems like this bias toward established brands has become more of a thing since we started this playoff,” UCF athletic director Danny White said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s great for the sport.”

UCF head coach Josh Heupel can't be happy with where the Knights are ranked right now. (USAT)
UCF head coach Josh Heupel can't be happy with where the Knights are ranked right now. (USAT)

White wouldn’t take the leap to say that he’s concerned the low poll placement would impact the College Football Playoff committee, which chooses the four-team field. But no one would argue that it’s helping.

Kiffin’s eye test began in pregame warmups, where he’s long taken the time to study personnel.

“They looked just like an ACC or SEC team,” Kiffin told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview on Wednesday night. “Not Alabama or Clemson, but one of the top teams in both of those conferences. They’ve done an unbelievable job recruiting. They have skill. Normally in the Group of Five they have skill players but not the [size on] the lines, well UCF has long and good-looking linemen.”

Kiffin’s Owls also played Ohio State earlier this year, and he said that the talent level was “close,” with Ohio State being “a little bit bigger” on the lines. “I thought Ohio State was as good looking as you can look,” Kiffin said.

As UCF marched to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, they never had a chance to seriously enter the four-team College Football Playoff discussion. UCF peaked at No. 8 last year and No. 12 in 2017 in the CFP rankings. Where they start this season will be the focus of much debate, as they started at No. 18 in 2017 and No. 12 last year, basically positions where they had no realistic shot at making the playoff. (UCF beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, 34-27, two years ago and lost to LSU, 40-32, last year without Milton, the dazzling quarterback who is still recovering from a horrific leg injury in November.)

UCF hasn’t lost a regular season football game since November of 2016, and the feeling among Kiffin and others is that this defensive unit is the best they’ve had during the run. But a disconnect remains with the respect they’ve been afforded.

Stanford coach David Shaw politely declined comment when Yahoo Sports reached out this week. It’s hard to blame him, as few coaches relish dwelling on trips to the woodshed. He was direct after the game: “They are one of the best teams in America,” he said.

The vexing question remains when they’ll get treated like one. If UCF isn’t in the top 10 when the initial College Football Playoff rankings are revealed, they’ll have little chance to ascend to the top four. The fact that they’re already behind in the polls to a one-loss team (Texas) and a few that have looked uninspired – Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame – seems silly based on both recent history and quantifiable performance. UCF has outscored their opponents 155-21 and ranks in the top 20 in scoring offense and defense.

“I think there’s some people that think if you’re not a blue-blood program, you can’t play elite-level football,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said in a phone interview. “When I was a player and won a national championship [at Oklahoma], at that time if you were in middle America and Big 12 country, the thought and perception was you couldn’t win a championship if you weren’t from state of Florida.”

UCF's Dillon Gabriel attempts a pass during a game between Stanford Cardinal on Sept. 14. (Getty)
UCF's Dillon Gabriel attempts a pass during a game between Stanford Cardinal on Sept. 14. (Getty)

That obviously changed over time. But some things haven’t changed. Former WAC commissioner Karl Benson recalled the struggles Boise State had in getting recognized as a contender in the Bowl Championship Series race. It took nearly a decade of dominance and two Fiesta Bowl wins for Boise to start appearing in the preseason top 10.

“I don’t know if UCF and the AAC can do more than they’re already doing,” Benson said. “It’s disappointing and frustrating. I don’t know if you ever overcome it.”

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco embraced positive comments by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit this week the same way a democratic political candidate would an endorsement from The New York Times. Herbstreit criticized voters for not ranking UCF high enough and said they should be in the No. 9 to No. 10 range. Herbstreit admitted he’d been a skeptic of UCF in past years, but was won over in part because of the body of work and the precocious performance by freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel (22-for-30 and 4 TDs against Stanford).

White appreciated the comments as well, as he’s baffled by what voters are seeing.

“For those that rank us in the bottom of the top 25, I don’t think you can think that’s factual,” he said. “There has to be some other motivation. It’s disappointing because it’s disrespectful to our kids and what they’ve accomplished.”

Nearly 15 years ago, Urban Meyer was in a similar position to Heupel when he coached at Utah. The Utes went 12-0, blasted Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl and Meyer recalled a season that necessitated perfection and “started to weigh on us as a team.” Meyer, now an analyst for Fox, added: “You ending up feeling like you can’t just win, but you have to really win. I felt so much pressure.” That included when to pull starters, as the optics of wins became important.

Fifteen years later, UCF is facing a similar expectation of perfection in order to bend a narrative. Kiffin can only chuckle at the predictability of it all.

“What more do you want them to do?” he said. “These other big-name teams scrape by and are ranked ahead of them. These guys are blowing out everyone they play.”

Will another blowout win Saturday against Pittsburgh change anything? White and Heupel are just hoping for open minds.

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