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The UCF Playoff Course Can Be Found in Happy Valley History

by on November 15, 2018 5:00 AM


This week ESPN’s College GameDay and ABC primetime game are at UCF, and for good reason. The Knights are undefeated and hold the nation’s longest winning streak. But despite all that they’re outside the top four and rank a distant No. 11, behind six one-loss teams and one two-loss team. This is not news nor is it new. Last year UCF finished undefeated and out of the playoff, but then proceeded to beat SEC West Division Champion Auburn in the Peach Bowl.

Unfortunately, the Knights appear headed for another undefeated College Football Playoff lockout. If remaining undefeated and winning 21 straight games isn’t enough, how can a non-Power 5 conference team ever hope to crash the playoff party?

There is a road map of sorts here in Happy Valley’s history.

After 25 years in the Big Ten, for some it may be hard to remember Penn State’s football independence that lasted more than a century. Back in the late 1970s and 80s schools like Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, Penn State, Pitt, Virginia Tech and South Carolina were independent of the major conferences: the SEC, Pac 8/10, Big 8, SWC, Big Ten and ACC.

In those independent years Penn State finished undefeated but voted out of national championships in favor of teams like Ohio State (1968), Texas (1969) and an Alabama/Notre Dame split (1973). By the mid-1970s Penn State recognized the need for improved schedules to gain national respect.

The athletic department scheduling model included Eastern independents Pitt, Temple, West Virginia, Syracuse, Rutgers and Boston College and ACC opponent Maryland nearly every year. Those seven teams essentially made up a de facto “conference” home-and-home schedule. Despite a dominating run from 1966 through 1978 racking up a 60-3 record against those seven teams, Penn State needed to step up the schedule in the eyes of pollsters.

Penn State aggressively scheduled their “non-conference” games. From the 1979 through 1990 43 of 53 regular-season “non-conference” games were against the pool of 56 teams from major-conferences (and Notre Dame). Thirty-six games were against Alabama (10), Notre Dame (10), Nebraska (5), Texas (3), Miami (3), Texas A&M (2), Iowa (2) and USC (1).

In that 12-season stretch Penn State played for three national titles, winning two.

In 1982 the scheduling model paid off. No. 2 Penn State defeated No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-1 and was voted national champion over 11-0-1 SMU of the powerful Southwest Conference. With “non-conference” games against No. 3 Nebraska, at No. 4 Alabama and at No. 13 Notre Dame and six games against teams that finished in the top 20, Penn State had played the nation’s toughest schedule.

That scheduling model remained in place through the Nittany Lions’ first Big Ten season in 1993. For example, the 1989 non-conference schedule was Virginia, Alabama, Notre Dame and at Texas and in 1990 it was at Alabama, Texas, at Notre Dame and at USC.

So what lesson can UCF take from this? The message is power up.

Including this year they have won 10 or more games four times in the last 10 seasons (their next win this season will make that 5 seasons). Where UCF has fallen short is in non-conference Power 5 games, going 8-13. But the Knights do have a 3-1 bowl record against Power 5 teams.

In the near-term they can’t change conferences, but what they can control is their non-conference schedule. To get to the College Football Playoff, they’ll need to schedule aggressively against a mix of Power 5 conference teams. It may even require going to play a top team twice on the road and once at home.

Most seasons they have scheduled two Power 5 teams, most recently against UNC, Georgia Tech, Pitt, Maryland and Missouri. They are all good programs but most years they won’t get the playoff committee’s attention. To get to the next level they will have to play specific types of Power 5 teams.

UCF needs one national headliner team like Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio State, or Clemson — every year. Then they need another Power 5 game against conference-title contender teams like West Virginia, Oregon, Syracuse, Stanford, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech or Washington to get to a different region and into other conference media markets. The last Power 5 game should be against teams like Miami, Maryland, UCLA, Florida, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt or Northwestern to get into big media-market cities, or in the case of playing Florida, to boost recruiting.

If UCF was sitting at 9-0 right now with non-conference wins over Georgia, West Virginia and Miami, they’d likely be in the top five or six because the committee would respect their power non-conference schedule. UCF scheduled games through 2025 against Pitt, Stanford, Georgia Tech, UNC and Louisville , which are a good start but not enough to propel them into the playoff.

Yes it is a steeper climb, but if the UCF administration is serious about becoming a playoff contender, there is an example to show the way forward. As a school started with an eye on educating future NASA employees at Cape Canaveral, there’s a history course toward a UCF playoff orbit for a football program that’s taking off.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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