What if UCF had made the College Football Playoff?

Alabama is your 2017 Playoff champion, but as the No. 4 seed, it’s also the team that would have been left out had another team earned a nod. Say a team like the disputed champion UCF Knights.

As it happens, the No. 4 seed has now won two of the four Playoff championships. Could UCF have pulled off the same feat, if the committee had decided non-powers were eligible to compete?

We don’t have a ton of information to go off here, save for UCF’s performance against a Group of 5 schedule and a victory against Auburn in the Peach Bowl. However, Auburn defeated both of the participants in the title game, and it’s not likely that the Tigers were any more distracted than the Knights, whose coaches were balancing bowl prep with taking over Nebraska. So we can at least learn a few things from the Peach.

The Knights’ schedule-adjusted statistical profile in S&P+ is comparable to the four Playoff teams’, and their defense might have been a tad underrated by the advanced metrics:

Playoff S&P+ profiles

Team S&P+ Rankings
Team S&P+ Rankings
Clemson 45th Off, 1st Def, 52nd S/T
Georgia 14th Off, 11th Def, 3rd S/T
Oklahoma 1st Off, 101st Def, 71st S/T
Alabama 23rd Off, 1st Def, 52nd S/T
UCF 2nd Off, 74th Def, 51st S/T

We also know who UCF would have had to defeat in order to win the championship. They would have needed to match Alabama’s path by defeating Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and then Georgia in Atlanta.

Takeaways from the Peach Bowl

The biggest question against a top Power 5 team concerns the trenches.

Speed wouldn’t be a huge concern. The better non-powers sometimes have as many high-caliber skill athletes as even the contender P5 schools. The famous 2007 Appalachian State upset over Michigan demonstrated this, and the sport’s since continued to shift toward the spread.

Access to higher-rated recruits doesn’t always mean perceptible advantages on the perimeter. The world is filled with good athletes in the 6’, 200-pound range, so there’s enough to go around beyond the P5 schools.

The athletes who are actually rare: 300-pounders who can dominate the box.

Auburn was a great test case for how well UCF might hold up in other hypothetical matchups, because the Tigers won a lot of games by being the bigger, stronger team. All year, Auburn OL Braden Smith and Austin Golson made way for RB Kerryon Johnson while FB Chandler Cox was a featured cog. The DL featured star pass rusher Jeff Holland and a rotation of defensive tackles that built the No. 5 defense in the country (per S&P+).

The answer? Results were mixed.

UCF vs Auburn

UCF Auburn
UCF Auburn
10 TFL, six sacks Two TFL, one sack
71 plays for 411 yards, 5.8 ypp 77 plays for 421 yards, 5.5 ypp
175 rushing yards, 5 ypc 138 rushing yards, 3.6 ypc
242 passing yards, 6.9 ypa 331 passing yards, 7.7 ypa
One turnover Three turnovers
6-14 (43%) 9-18 (50%)

By the numbers, you sense how this game proceeded. Auburn won some straight-up battles but was done in by making fewer big plays and failing to control the line of scrimmage.

Review of the film says that despite UCF’s gaudy run numbers, the Knights didn’t win by running right at Auburn, even with favorable numbers:


They didn’t protect McKenzie Milton that terribly well against the pass rush, either. The difference in both instances was UCF’s speed, particularly at QB:


But on defense, the Knights were surprisingly dominant in the trenches, particularly DL Jamiyus Pittman (6’, 319-pound senior) and Trysten Hill (6’1, 330-pound sophomore):


You can see Pittman two-gapping against the All-SEC Smith and throwing him down to his knees before making the tackle on SEC Offensive Player of the Year Johnson. The Tigers aren’t really able to control Hill at the nose here, either.

Then there was senior outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin:


The UCF defense was the stronger and more athletic unit in their contest with the Auburn offense.

On offense, the dynamic play of Milton and the versatile skill players, which included two good tight ends and two RB/WR hybrids, allowed the Knights to move the focal point to the perimeter, where Auburn couldn’t beat them up.

So how does this translate to a hypothetical semifinal against Clemson?

The Clemson running game would struggle to control UCF’s big DL or to get loose on the edge against Griffin and the Knight secondary.

But could UCF score against Clemson’s dominant defense?

Clemson and UCF were similar on offense. Neither was quite good enough to own the trenches running downhill, but both had mobile QBs, deep stables of explosive athletes, and thick playbooks of tactics for getting athletes in space.

The big difference is on offense, where UCF had a more versatile squad and better QB play. Milton had a relatively poor game against Auburn, regularly missing open targets, but UCF wrecked the normally sound defense with double TE/hybrid RB sets that used motion and Milton’s running ability to create easy leverage.


On this play, you can see the problems emerging as the RB motions out wide. One LB chases him to play man coverage, but this leaves the Tigers short a man in the box. The remaining LB takes on the pulling guard and forces the ball inside to no one.

Clemson’s dazzling array of blitzes could get them into trouble against UCF. The Knights could use hybrid personnel and motion to find the Tigers out before the snap.

It’d be foolish to overlook Clemson DC Brent Venables’ ability to find tells in the Knights’ alignments and personnel packages. That said, Clemson’s big plays on offense this year tended to come from play designs, while UCF got more regular production out of Milton making things happen on his own. That extra level of dual-threat improvisation might give the edge to UCF.

For whatever it’s worth, Clemson also beat Auburn by a touchdown, in a much lower-scoring game than the Peach.

S&P+ would pick UCF over Clemson by literally the slimmest of margins: .1 point. It would take Georgia to beat UCF by 2.

Georgia could control UCF’s interior run game just as Auburn did, but the Dawg secondary and All-American LB Roquan Smith would make UCF’s attempts to find the perimeter more daunting. The Dawgs would be coming off a similar test against Oklahoma, a test they didn’t exactly pass with flying colors…


… but you’d have to assume they’d be better prepared for this challenge than was Auburn, due to the recent OU experience and the veteran nature of their roster. UCF would be unlikely to ring up UGA quite like OU did.

UCF would need a strong showing on the other side of the ball to have a chance. The matchups there would be harder to discern. The UCF defense is your typical modern 3-4, hoping to contain the ball for the inside linebackers, Pat Jasinski and Chequan Burkett, who led the team in solo tackles and had 39 combined run stuffs.

Georgia tended to either bring extra TEs on the field and force teams to use a safety as the extra man or go spread and use run/pass options to control the extra defender.

UCF was hard to beat either way, as its DBs were all good in run support, and using bigger personnel invited Griffin coming free on the edge:


And they generally succeeded in preventing Auburn from finding enough room to build up momentum:


So would the Knights be able to control the line and tackle Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel well enough to limit Georgia?

Did they have enough to win multiple games against blue blood programs?

UCF didn’t get a chance to attempt the most important upset in the history of college football. Maybe someday we’ll know the true answer to this sort of question.

What do you think?

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