College Sports

A case for why UCF — not UM, UF or FSU — is the top college football program in Florida

Saban dismisses claim that UCF shares national title with Alabama

Alabama coach Nick Saban insists that his team is the true NCAA football champion, and not UCF, who went undefeated last season. Saban added that the College Football Playoff system is "not broken."
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Alabama coach Nick Saban insists that his team is the true NCAA football champion, and not UCF, who went undefeated last season. Saban added that the College Football Playoff system is "not broken."

The state’s Big 3 in college football is a lie in 2018.

It’s a Big 4 — unless you want to drop FSU out of the discussion for now.

The order is UCF, Miami, Florida and Florida State.

So for everyone who proclaims Saturday’s UM-FSU game at Hard Rock Stadium will decide the best team in the state, you might want to look about 250 miles north.

Let’s get this out the way now. My email address is jdevine@miamiherald.com for all the people who are going to tell me how stupid I am. But before you post to every message board for your favorite state university, let me tell you why the Knights are at the top (with the Canes a close second) right now — and might not go away for a while.

Longest winning streak in the nation: UCF (4-0) is at 17 games heading into Saturday’s home game against SMU. For those who want to argue that UCF hasn’t played anyone, they defeated ranked teams in South Florida, Memphis and, of course, Auburn in the Peach Bowl.

UM (4-1) will rightly claim UCF did not open the season against a team as tough of LSU. But let’s try this on for size. Two weeks ago UNC beat Pittsburgh 38-35. Last week, the Canes beat UNC 47-10, while UCF beat Pitt 45-14.

Tie goes to the unbeaten team.

Even the thought of beating an ACC team, which was cause for celebration five to 10 years ago, is expected. “It was just another football team,” UCF running back Adrian Killins told the Orlando Sentinel after Saturday’s blowout win. “Beating Pitt was just another game on our schedule. We had to do what we had to do to get the win.”

Even the polls are taking notice. UCF is ranked 12th in the AP poll followed by UM at 17 and the Gators (4-1) at 22. FSU (3-2) is unranked and USF (4-0) falls in that shadowy realm called “others receiving votes.” With the exception of UF all of these teams — including FAU (2-3) and FIU (3-2) — played in bowl games last season and are on track again this year. Maybe FSU won’t have to reschedule Louisiana-Monroe at the end of the season to become eligible for the Independence Bowl.

That UCF is ranked so high this early in the season is a testament to my next point.

Last year matters: Let’s put aside the national championship claims and the parade at Disney World (more on that later). Two of the biggest reasons UCF had no shot at reaching the College Football Playoffs last year were the fact it’s not in a Power 5 conference and that it started the season unranked. The earlier a team cracks the Top 25, the easier it is to ascend.

The Knights were not ranked until the fourth game of the season; this year they started in the Top 25. If they win the rest of their games and the American Athletic Conference title game, the Knights can be in the conversation.

Don’t believe me? How about this tweet from former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz on Monday. (Canes fans would throw darts at me if they knew what I looked like). “UCF_Football must be given consideration for a place in the playoff race. They are for real. They can play with anyone.”

And before you start knocking the conference, it has been renamed from the Big East, a conference UM played in from 1991 to 2004. UM left for the ACC in 2004 and is still waiting for its first conference championship. Sure some of the teams are gone, but the conference was 4-3 in bowl games last year, with victories against Auburn, Virginia and Texas Tech. Memphis finished the season ranked in the Top 25 as well.

And don’t think the Knights wouldn’t love to play in a Power 5 conference if available. UCF and USF applied for membership in the Big 12 and were turned down. The Big 12 may have made a mistake.

Bright future: With a student enrollment of 66,183, UCF is the largest school by enrollment in state and one of the biggest in the nation. Include an alumni base of more than 200,000 and there are people who are more and more interested.

The UCF fan experience has been a mixture of FIU and UM. When UCF started its football program in 1979, fans had to trudge 16 miles from campus to what is now Camping World Stadium — kind of like UM students who have to drive or grab shuttles to go to Hard Rock Stadium. The drive combined with inconsistent football (despite the heroics of Daunte Culpepper, Brandon Marshall, Asante Samuel and scores of others) kept interest and attendance down. UCF has had brief moments of success, including a Fiesta Bowl victory in 2014 over Baylor, but nothing like this.

Now equipped with an indoor practice facility (the kind UM waited years to get), top-flight football featuring Heisman candidate McKenzie Milton and an on-campus stadium nicknamed the bounce house since 2007, alumni are flocking back to their alma mater. People who graduated and disappeared now attend watch parties and — gasp — come back to watch a game. When the school was faced with the prospect of losing coach Scott Frost to Nebraska — alumni stepped up to donate millions for an Athletics Village and raises for assistants and new coach Josh Heupel. That good feeling goes a long way toward the final step toward the elite.

Bragging rights: If you’re not an FSU fan, you probably hate the Tomahawk chop and Chief Osceola throwing down a flaming spear before home games. Gators fans have “Go Gators,” Steve Spurrier, Tim Tebow and the SEC. UM has a fistful of national championship rings, more NFL players than you can name and now the turnover chain.

UCF? It took a page from Alabama’s past and claimed a national title, but with better PR. Do you think fans don’t understand the parade at Disney was obnoxious? They don’t care. For 17 games, picture a little brother who grew up and can kick big brother’s butt.

As an alumnus I must confess I have waited 25 years in South Florida to have some sort of bragging rights.

The Knights are taking their “rise and conquer” slogan seriously.

John Devine is the Miami Herald’s deputy sports editor.

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