Before 2017’s first College Football Playoff rankings dropped, I picked UCF and its dominant offense to land at No. 14. That would’ve made the Knights close to the highest-ranked mid-major ever (2015 Memphis, which debuted at No. 13), but they’d dusted a decent schedule in a year when that’s proved especially difficult for most teams. Somewhere around 14th seemed like a fair guess, considering the committee’s hesitance to rank teams from outside the Power 5.
Undefeated UCF started out at No. 18.
Disappointing, but not a shocker. The Playoff committee tends to be much lower on mid-majors than the polls, advanced stats, non-advanced stats, fans, and analysts are. No big deal! The CFP is only in charge of the sport’s postseason!
Then UCF beat a solid SMU on the road, holding the explosive Mustangs to nearly a season low in scoring. Meanwhile, three teams ranked right ahead of UCF lost by double digits while Mississippi State struggled with 2-6 UMass at home. Surely the Knights could jump a couple of those, at least?
Iowa State fell behind UCF, while Michigan State (fairly) jumped half the top 25, but that was that.
The issue evidently comes down to strength of schedule. Chairperson Kirby Hocutt called it a “challenge” to rank a team with UCF’s schedule higher. Here’s how UCF compares with the other team whose schedule the committee is worried about, using a mix of numbers we know the committee uses and smarter numbers:
UCF vs. Wisconsin
|Best win||40-13 vs. #22 Memphis||33-24 vs. #25 Northwestern|
|Second best win||31-24 at 6-3 SMU||31-14 vs. 6-3 FAU|
|Third best win||31-21 at 5-3 Navy||uhhh idk|
|vs. winning teams||4-0||2-0|
|Avg. score vs. FBS||45-18||36-12|
|vs. Big Ten||1-0||6-0|
|Strength of Record||#10||#8|
You tell me what UW’s done to deserve being 10 spots ahead.
I’m not arguing for UCF to be ranked ahead of Wisconsin, a team on course to be Playoff-worthy. I’m arguing for UCF to at least be ranked ahead of, say, Virginia Tech, whose second-best win is over Boston College, or Mississippi State, who’s had three bad games in nine tries.
I’m also not calling for UCF to be ranked in the top five or even top 10. But when the Playoff committee was already the outlier at ranking a team and then made no change despite that team’s resume improving even as those around it stumbled, it’s another data point (committee term) to add to the argument that the Playoff is designed to exclude mid-majors.
Non-powers that rack up lots of W’s can be tough to rank correctly, sure.
The first year of committee rankings famously saw Marshall go unranked until it’d reached 11-0 with lots of blowout wins over weak teams, at which point the Herd hit No. 24. That team finished 13-1 ... but only No. 53 in opponent-adjusted S&P+. In that case, ranking Marshall lower than everyone else proved to be defensible.
But did the committee let that correct assessment color its perception of non-power teams indefinitely? We have no idea, since they barely explain any of these rankings at any point.