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Here in the week before the national championship game, much of the discussion has been about a team that is a) not playing in the national championship game but b) has declared itself the national champion anyway.
Credit Central Florida AD Danny White for the sports marketing move of the year. His team’s 13-0 record, complete with a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, could have quickly faded into the background, lost and mostly forgotten in the swirl of the College Football Playoff and the hype for Monday’s Alabama-Georgia clash.
Instead, White declared the Knights the national champs, has planned a national championship parade in Orlando and is even paying out bonuses to coaches for winning the national championship. That was enough to get everyone talking, and still talking, about UCF.
The Knights aren’t the first team outside of a power conference to finish unbeaten yet uncrowned by the sport’s official championship system. Utah, TCU, Boise State, Houston and others before have been there.
White is just the first one smart enough to go all-in.
Make no mistake, UCF is not the national champions. Monday’s winner is. That’s the system and UCF has, in theory, access to said system (it certainly cashes the checks the system generates for all programs). That access is not as streamlined and as simple as it is for schools in the five major conferences, but if the Knights had played a stronger non-conference schedule, they could have, as unbeaten champs of the American Athletic Conference, gotten a bid to the playoff. It’s not impossible.
That doesn’t mean UCF is wrong here, at least by the odd and ridiculous standards of college football of declaring yourself a champion even when you aren’t the champion.
It’s all promotion anyway. All marketing.
Alabama, for example, has as rich of a tradition as anyone. The Crimson Tide wouldn’t seem to be the kind of program that needs to stoop to dubious measures to pump its own tires but it does.
The school claims 16 national titles, dubbing it “An Unmatched Legacy” in promotional and recruiting literature. Those 16 include the 1941 national title where the Tide finished 9-2 and were ranked 20th in the final AP poll. How? Well, a confused mathematical formula of the day, the Houlgate System, spit out Bama as the champs, so Bama is good with it. Then there is 1973, when Alabama entered the Sugar Bowl at No. 1 only to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame. The coaches’ poll, though, didn’t vote after the bowl season. As such, Alabama claimed a national title (which means maybe Clemson should claim this year’s title, too).
Essentially, the school assumes that very few of the people it is trying to impress by claiming an “Unmatched Legacy” — which would be unmatched even without the stretching – actually research said unmatched legacy.
It’s not just Alabama, either, lots of schools do it. Minnesota said it won the 1904 title … in 2012, when research unearthed a possible claim. Sure, it was 108 years later and the 1904 Gophers played two high school teams that season, but current coach P.J. Fleck is quick to point out to recruits that the Gophers have won seven national titles and he is simply trying to restore Minnesota’s illustrious tradition. It sounds good at least.
This isn’t even all about the old days. Southern California claims a 2003 title because it got locked out of the BCS title game, won by LSU.
UCF’s path here is well-worn.
The Knights have managed to rankle the powers that be in college football, of course. As long as a team can win all its games and not play for the title, though, the sport will have this issue. The solution is simple: Reform the postseason, create an eight-team playoff by eliminating conference championship games which are inefficient and outdated. Give automatic bids to five major conference champs and the best of the rest.
Until then, college football is open to a savvy young athletic director playing it for the fool.
This isn’t just a short-term play, either. UCF is basking in publicity as it builds its athletic department, which is teeming with potential.
It sits in the middle of one of the most talent-rich regions in one of the most talent-rich states in America. It’s total enrollment of 64,000 (depending on how you count, the largest in the country) means more alums and more fans each year. And the Orlando-area isn’t just growing quickly due to migration from other parts of America, it’s boomed just this year with an influx of well over 100,000 people (and counting) who have moved in from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. It could be a top-15 media market soon. There’s an awful lot of “power conference schools” who wish they had it so good.
This is the boom program in a boom town.
And it’s doing what just about everyone else always does in this wonderfully nutso sport – standing up and declaring its greatness, even if it is a bit embellished.