ATLANTA — If you squinted hard enough during the Peach Bowl, you could picture the stakes for UCF meaning more.
If you let your imagination wander during a meaningless New Year’s Day exhibition, you could envision the Knights holding their own while sniffing roses or tasting sugar.
UCF’s Ferrari of an offense hit potholes against Auburn on Monday, especially during a first quarter in which it totaled 8 yards and 1 first down. But by the end, the Knights delivered an exclamation point with a 34-27 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during coach Scott Frost’s final game before he traded UCF’s Big Cinderella for Nebraska’s Big Red.
This feel-good story deserved a different chapter on this day, one that played out in Pasadena or New Orleans.
Why did the College Football Playoff selection committee deem the Knights (13-0) unworthy of legitimate consideration for a chance at a national title? Why were they slotted all the way down at No. 12 in the latest rankings, behind more flawed peers?
There’s no good answer. The sad truth is that Group of Five teams seemingly own a permanent seat at college football’s kiddie table while the sport’s kings enjoy an annual feast this time of year. Gluttony for those at the top of the food chain remains at the heart of the current ecosystem.
It’s not fair. It’s not right.
Anyone who saw Knights fans light up Mercedes-Benz Stadium with their cell-phone flashlights while chanting, “U-C-F!” on Monday afternoon could tell as much.
Yes, Auburn (10-4) might have played better with a berth in the national championship game at stake. Yes, the Tigers might have turned back a plucky-and-proud UCF bunch if these teams were, well, knighted among the nation’s top four.
But it’s a shame we’ll never know how UCF would have fared against Clemson or Alabama, Oklahoma or Georgia.
It’s a sham.
Oh, the College Football Playoff is better than previous incarnations of the sport’s postseason structure. Likely, these words on this screen would never exist if we still lived in the Bowl Alliance or Bowl Championship Series eras. The thought of a team such as UCF playing for a national championship in earlier years would have seemed as logical as someone screaming “Roll Tide!” in Toomer’s Corner.
Thankfully, this fantastically flawed sport has evolved since the Dark Ages of split national champions and computers spitting out confusing results. But more can and should be done.
UCF’s statement will stand as proof.
Some expected Auburn and its SEC pedigree to overwhelm the American Athletic Conference champions. After all, the Tigers beat Alabama, won the SEC West and tore through its schedule for five straight victories before losing to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2. The Tigers were the best the SEC could offer outside Athens or Tuscaloosa.
The Knights not only stood up to Auburn, they landed uppercuts and drew blood.
UCF fought back against “It Just Means More.” Bottom line: Frost’s team deserved more.
If only. Surprisingly, the Knights defense gave UCF hope most of the afternoon. The unit mastered the art of bending and avoiding the break before the Knights entered halftime with a 13-6 lead. Auburn outgained UCF 185 yards to 126 in the first half, but the Tigers never looked comfortable.
Auburn stormed back and took a 20-13 lead with 2 touchdowns in the third quarter. Still, UCF held firm and answered big.
Could the Knights have impressed against any of the teams in the College Football Playoff? It’s impossible to know, but their play Monday hinted that pushing a heavyweight to the limit in the Rose or Sugar bowls was possible. Now we know they belonged on that field against Auburn.
Each fan who cares about finding a “true” national champion should hope the wall that keeps a team such as UCF from the College Football Playoff crumbles in a marvelous heap.
If you push your mind to the limit, you can see such a day on the horizon.
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