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Who’ll be 2018’s UCF?

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I don’t mean which team will crown itself national champ, per se, though they can certainly feel free to do so, if they want.

Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Oregon Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

One running subplot of every college football season since 2004 or so: one mid-major being hailed as the BCS/Playoff-buster of our dreams, but ending up playing some power conference’s second-best team in a pretty good bowl instead (and probably winning).

2017’s UCF manufactured whole new levels of attention for its unbeaten run, though it was hardly the first team of the semi-regulated-postseason era to learn non-powers are ineligible for FBS national titles.

In this year’s New Year’s Six bowl rotation, the Fiesta or Peach will be the top mid-major consolation game.

So who’ll be 2018’s mid-major we all become huge fans of each Tuesday night in November, when the committee rankings have our unbeaten State Whatevers ranking No. 17, just behind a four-loss SEC team?

Based on the Tier 1 teams in Bill Connelly’s team preview series (the best in the business, totally free, and halfway done) and an educated guess at conference pecking order, I’d stack them up something like this:

  1. UCF, Memphis, Houston, or other AAC champ
  2. Boise State or other MWC champ
  3. FAU
  4. Ohio, Toledo, NIU or other MAC champ
  5. Arkansas State, Troy, Appalachian State, or other Sun Belt champ
  6. Non-FAU C-USA champ

That’s a loose order. For example, could a one-loss Boise State top a one-loss AAC champ? Certainly, since the Broncos would’ve beaten either/both Oklahoma State and/or potential Sun Belt champ Troy on the road, while the AAC’s top-tier teams don’t have a lot of Power 5 games really worth bragging about.

But if the AAC doesn’t eat itself and nobody else goes off, the AAC has to be considered the leader.

FAU’s a wild card, both in schedule terms -- beat either Oklahoma or UCF, and we have a new early favorite -- and in comparison to the rest of its conference. Conference USA was by far 2017’s least balanced league, arguably boasting three of FBS’ four worst teams along with the 11-3 Owls. Take away FAU, and that was a terrible conference. S&P+ projects C-USA to have 12 below-average teams in 2018, the most of anybody, and three of the bottom five. Pretty confident saying it’s Lane Kiffin or bust for C-USA’s New Year’s.

After FAU, the MAC projects slightly more highly than the SBC. Toledo winning at Miami or NIU winning at Florida State are unlikely, but tell me NIU opening by beating an eventual 8-5 Iowa doesn’t sound realistic. If not, maybe Utah at home? Damn, NIU, get paid.

In the Sun Belt, Troy probably has the most realistic opportunities to turn heads, catching Nebraska early (any insulted Huskers fans should know I’m comparing that game to Appalachian State-Penn State and Arkansas State-Alabama) and hosting Boise State.

Considering UCF’s losses (its entire coaching staff and four NFL Draft picks, including first-rounder Mike Hughes and Peach Bowl MVP Shaquem Griffin), I had Boise State down as the way-too-early pick back in January, albeit with a note that the whole thing was extremely subject to change.

Probably sticking with that for now, but what do you think?