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UCF Might Not Even Be As Good As Fresno State — Let Alone Georgia Or Michigan

No modern-day college football program has publicly coveted the role of Cinderella quite like Central Florida. Just two years removed from a winless season in 2015, the Knights went undefeated a year ago and even proclaimed themselves national champions. After beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl, the Knights threw themselves a parade at Disney World and took photos in front of, yes, Cinderella’s Castle.

But a more fitting photo might have been in front of Epcot’s Imagination Pavilion. UCF’s fairytale narrative, at least for the time being, doesn’t really exist. After all, it’s not much of a story if Cinderella never gets invited to the ball and just continues scrubbing the floors.

Just like last year, 11th-ranked UCF is again undefeated and clamoring for a spot in the College Football Playoff — which, barring a late-season Armageddon, it won’t get. This doesn’t sit too well with the team holding the nation’s longest winning streak, nor with officials of the American Athletic Conference, one of the Group-of-Five conferences1 that sit just below the Power Five.2 But lost in the endless debate over whether UCF deserves to be considered one of the four best teams in the country is a more interesting question: Is UCF even the best Group-of-Five team?

Two teams from the Mountain West — Fresno State (8-2) and Utah State (9-1) — have arguably better resumes than the Knights. Utah State lost in the waning moments to Michigan State in East Lansing but has rebounded to win nine consecutive games by ostentatious scores — only Alabama and Clemson tout stronger average scoring margins. Fresno State has dropped two road games — at Minnesota and Boise State — but has overwhelmed the rest of its schedule. Fresno State is averaging 20-point victories this season, the sixth-best average scoring margin in the country.

Comprehensive metrics such as ESPN’s team efficiency and Football Power Index and Jeff Sagarin’s team ratings all favor Fresno State over UCF, and both of the ESPN metrics also favor Utah State over the Knights. The Knights trail six teams with one loss in the College Football Playoff rankings. A team with two losses is also ranked ahead of the Knights.

Undefeated UCF may not be the best non-Power Five team

How Central Florida, Fresno State and Utah State compare in a variety of metrics and ranking systems

TEAM Total Efficiency RK FPI RK Sagarin RK Opp. Win % RK
Fresno State 81.6 7 13.1 19 82.6 17 .488 88
Utah State 77.8 11 11.6 26 79.8 29 .415 122
UCF 71.7 21 9.9 30 80.8 23 .458 104

Source: ESPN.com, Jeff Sagarin

While UCF has indeed blown out its competition, the Knights are effectively playing a junior-varsity schedule.3 Central Florida’s case is acutely hurt by its mere membership in the American Athletic Conference, which boasts five of the 35 worst teams nationally, according to ESPN’s FPI. In total, UCF’s opponents have combined to go 37-51 over the season — and the Knights have yet to play a team that has compiled fewer than four losses or one ranked better than 50th in FPI.4 The Knights’ nonconference schedule didn’t do the team any favors; South Carolina State, for example, is a member of the Football Championship Subdivision. As ESPN’s Heather Dinich notes, an average team ranked in the top 25 would have a 42 percent chance of going 9-0 against UCF’s schedule, according to ESPN’s strength of record metric.

Then there’s another team that UCF can’t measure up to: the 2017 Knights. This year’s version is lagging the team from a season ago, when it had a much stronger case for playoff inclusion, in nearly every phase of the game. Some of that is certainly attributable to the departure of head coach Scott Frost and his entire coaching staff. New head coach Josh Heupel hasn’t had difficulty hitting his talking points, but the Knights have regressed in offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency.5 No facet has ebbed more than the defense.

The Knights’ defense has regressed

How Central Florida’s defense this year compares with the defense of last year’s team

Defensive StatisTIC 2017 2018
Defensive efficiency national ranking 32nd 54th
Share of rush first downs or TDs per rush 23.5% 27.2%
Share of plays for zero or negative yards 35.6% 34.8%
Share of plays for 5+ yards 39.3% 40.0%
Share of plays for 10+ yards 19.3% 20.2%
Rate of drives with a first down resulting in a score 37.8% 40.5%

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Knights startled the country last season when their defensive front dominated an SEC offensive line in the Peach Bowl. However, this season has been chock-full of poor defensive performances. UCF transitioned to a 4-3 base scheme from a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, and the team has seen improvements in yardage allowed per play and per contest. However, the Knights have dropped from 32nd to 54th in defensive efficiency. Only 27 teams have allowed more running yards after contact than UCF, and the school ranks 96th in three-and-out rate and 83rd in third-down conversion defense. These shoddy marks are further amplified when taking into consideration the quality of opponent that UCF has faced.

Until the playoffs expand beyond four teams, there will always be frustrated fan bases at the end of the regular season. The playoff selection committee has never taken a Group-of-Five team, a streak that will almost certainly be extended this season because the argument for UCF’s inclusion doesn’t hold much water. If anything, Fresno State and Utah State have pieced together stronger seasons and candidacies for a spot in the playoff. The Knights desperately want their Cinderella slipper to fit, but the clock may have already struck midnight for them.

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The others are Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt Conference.

  2. The Big Ten, the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12.

  3. Though so is Utah State.

  4. UCF hosts No. 24 Cincinnati this weekend in what will be the Knights’ toughest game of the regular season. The Bearcats rank 44th in FPI.

  5. Efficiency is ESPN’s measure of per-play effectiveness on a 0-100 scale.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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