Le Batard: UCF ‘could have been the most surprising national champion’ in football history

The UCF Knights celebrate defeating the Auburn Tigers 34-27 to win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta.
The UCF Knights celebrate defeating the Auburn Tigers 34-27 to win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. Getty Images

The college football national championship will be decided on Jan. 8 between the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs and No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide, who won their respective College Football Playoff semifinal games on Monday.

But no matter how that all-SEC matchup pans out, another team has already staked its claim as the nation’s best team.

That team is the University of Central Florida, the lone undefeated college football team for the 2017 season.

The Knights closed the year a perfect 13-0, capped with a 34-27 win over Auburn Monday in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium — the site of next week’s national championship game. This perfect season comes just two years after UCF went 0-12 in 2015.

“National champs,” UCF athletic director Danny White said on the field after the game. “Undefeated.”

However, despite holding a perfect record, a conference title and the top-ranked scoring offense in the country — averaging a blistering 48.2 points per game — UCF never had the chance to compete in the College Football Playoff. The committee ranked the Knights, who play in the American Athletic Conference, 12th in the final poll, behind one Power Five conference team with three losses (Auburn) before bowl season began and five others that had two losses. One spot below UCF at No. 13 was 9-4 Stanford.

“The only reason they’re left out is because they came out of nowhere,” ESPN’s Dan Le Batard said Tuesday on his radio show “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz.” “… That team could have been the most surprising national champion in the history of football.

“The team was wronged.”

White has adamantly disagreed with the playoff committee’s rankings all season, beginning with the first ranking that put the Knights at No. 18. His disdain for how the committee ranked teams continued each week as top teams saw their perfect records fall while UCF continued its run at perfection.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm spoke to reporters about his team’s 54-48 win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.

“There’s a bias against the schools that aren’t in what they call the Power 5. … We played teams as good or better than Auburn in our own conference,” White said on the Le Batard show. “I don’t think our conference is respected enough nationally and I think the committee needs to pay more attention to our conference.

“We’re on the outside looking in.”

So instead of playing in the College Football Playoff, the Knights took pleasure in defeating Auburn, which was ranked No. 7 in the College Football Playoff poll and which defeated both Georgia and Alabama during the regular season.

UCF jumped out to a 13-6 lead at halftime behind an 18-yard touchdown run by quarterback McKenzie Milton and a pair of field goals from Matthew Wright. Auburn closed the gap and took a brief 20-13 lead in the third quarter before the Knights scored 21 straight points on a pair of Milton touchdown passes and a pick-six by linebacker Chequan Burkett.

Freshman defensive back and former Miami Southridge standout Antwan Collier sealed UCF’s win by intercepting a pass from Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham in the end zone with 24 seconds left to play.

“You can just go ahead and cancel the College Football Playoff,” Milton, the Peach Bowl’s most valuable player on offense, said on the podium after the game.

With the win, UCF closed the year with victories over four teams ranked in the top 25 heading into bowl season and likely secured the Knights’ second top-10 national finish in program history.

“I think our kids are the national champs,” White said. “Really excited about this season … To go through a season 13-0, with a hurricane rescheduling games, no bye week, the coaching carousel. We have a group of really talented men that played 13 games and won it all and deserve to be called national champions.”

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