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UCF was the 3rd mid-major in 4 years to win a New Year’s bowl game. What now?

The Knights were good enough to get a national title shot, but current circumstances made that impossible.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Auburn v Central Florida
UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The UCF Knights finished the 2017 season 13-0. They capped that run by beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day in Atlanta, 34-27.

This is the fourth year of the College Football Playoff, and along with that, it’s the fourth year there’s been a New Year’s Six bowl bid (but not a Playoff spot) set aside for the highest-ranked champion from a Group of 5 conference. How they’ve done so far:

  • 2014: No. 20 Boise State over No. 10 Arizona, 38-30
  • 2015: No. 18 Houston over No. 9 Florida State, 38-24
  • 2016: No. 8 Wisconsin over No. 15 WMU, 24-16
  • 2017: No. 12 UCF over No. 7 Auburn, 34-27

That’s three wins in four years for the mid-major New Year’s bowl rep. In every instance, the team from the power conference entered with a higher ranking. This year’s five-spot gap in the Selection Sunday Playoff committee ranking is actually the smallest yet between the Group of 5 team and the Power 5 team it went up against.

The Group of 5’s success doesn’t mean everything.

At least for me, it doesn’t mean that Group of 5 teams need to be considered automatically for the Playoff if they go unbeaten or lose one game. They play far easier schedules than Power 5 teams, and schedule strength matters for everyone. Schedule strength is why one-loss Alabama made the field this year over one-loss Wisconsin, as neither team won its league. It’s a pivotal factor in evaluating teams.

UCF was incredible this year, and the Knights’ win against Auburn proved that they can hang with the big dogs from any league. But when the Playoff committee gathered at the start of December to set the field, UCF was nowhere near consideration. That’s what happens when your only Power 5 opponent is Maryland. That UCF beat Memphis (twice!), USF, Navy, and SMU in AAC play was nice, but those aren’t the sorts of teams who bolster a Playoff case much.

It should be time, though, to think about mid-majors’ future.

Mid-majors who don’t play and beat national powers shouldn’t make a four-team Playoff, sure. But what can be done to ensure that a team like UCF — which was perfect, and which proved too late that it could beat just about anyone — has at least some path to the top?

The sport would be more fun if Cinderellas had at least some chance at a title, and they currently don’t unless they have a blue-blood win. Because Houston’s season fell apart after beating Oklahoma in Week 1 in 2016, we don’t even know if that’s enough.

If the Playoff ever expands to eight or more teams, it might make sense to set aside a spot for the best Group of 5 team — especially if there are spots reserved for the winners of any power leagues. That’s one idea. Another is for Group of 5 conferences to mandate their teams schedule harder, by installing some kind of heightened criteria they need to meet. But that’s hard, because you can’t force Power 5 schools to schedule anyone in particular.

I don’t know what the fix is that would let a team like UCF have a chance in the future. But one exists somewhere, and it’s a shame the Knights didn’t have a shot in 2017. The season would’ve been more fun if they had championship potential as a Cinderella.

College football's first bowl game was almost its last