In a more perfect world, UCF and Alabama would have met in a playoff quarterfinal last year to decide a semifinal berth. In a college football postseason with playoff berths for the Power Five conference champions, the Group of Five champion, and two at-large or wild card teams — the field of eight teams which might become the sport’s new reality a decade from now, when the current playoff contract expires — UCF and Alabama surely would have been placed in the quarterfinals in a David-versus-Goliath confrontation.
As it was, Alabama won the College Football Playoff. UCF made its own claim to the 2017 national championship of college football. Websites and radio stations and television networks got a lot of mileage out of the UCF-Alabama public relations battle. The two schools are both prominent in the minds of college football fans and commentators these days.
One month into the 2018 season, they are linked in another way — a way you might not have thought about.
What could that possibly be, you ask? It is not as complicated as you might think.
Look around at the college football landscape. This year has a distinct “Cavs versus Warriors” feel, does it not?
Now that Ohio State has won at Penn State, and now that Wisconsin and Iowa have both lost in the Big Ten West, who but the Buckeyes has a realistic chance of winning the Big Ten Conference and going to the College Football Playoff?
With Miami and Virginia Tech having already lost, who but the Clemson Tigers has any real chance of winning the ACC and representing that league in the playoff?
TCU has already lost twice. Oklahoma State has already lost. Texas has already lost. With the possible exception of West Virginia, Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team with realistic national championship aspirations… and we haven’t yet played a game in October.
Across the country, conferences are balanced but weak in their middle tiers and have one team which stands above the rest.
This is where UCF and Alabama are very clearly linked.
Look at the AAC. Memphis has lost twice, and so has Navy. Houston doesn’t look particularly convincing, either. South Florida might be unbeaten, but the Bulls barely beat Illinois and East Carolina. They were outplayed most of the day by Georgia Tech before rallying late.
This is UCF’s world. There is no clear-cut No. 2 contender.. because there isn’t really ANY No. 2 contender to the Knights in the AAC UCF isn’t even sweating the Group of Five race. Boise State, Troy, North Texas, San Diego State, Fresno State — the really big threats outside the AAC — have all stumbled. UCF stands several notches above the competition in a context much larger than its own conference.
Speaking of conferences, though, look at the SEC. Georgia is a good team, but the Bulldogs have not looked close to the team which nearly won last year’s national title. Georgia is not in the same zip code as Alabama. The Crimson Tide are unleashing a Crimson flood of points this season, with Tua Tagovailoa making the sport of football look easy. Georgia is not in Alabama’s league — not through five games The SEC is Bama and then everyone else.
You can see, then, how UCF and Alabama are connected. They are both the undisputed leaders in their main pursuits — for conference championships on a smaller level and for playoff (Bama) and New Year’s Six bowl berths (UCF) on a larger national scale. This is a debatable point, but certainly a reasonable one as well:
The degree to which UCF towers over the AAC is matched by the degree to which Alabama towers over the SEC. Similarly, the degree to which UCF leads the Group of Five’s NY6 bowl derby is matched by the extent to which Alabama is in pole position to play for and win the national title. Any outcome other than UCF winning the Group of Five would be a significant surprise at this point. Any outcome other than Alabama winning the national championship would be a substantial plot twist at this early stage of the season.
UCF and Alabama are linked this year… just not in the way you might have expected. These programs do inhabit different worlds and live in different dimensions of stature and national importance. Naturally, they come from opposite sides of the tracks — one (Bama) from royal bloodlines and dynastic power, the other (UCF) from a small, hardscrabble upbringing in which it had to work very long and hard for every small scrap of income and recognition.
Yet, despite their differences, they stand in similar positions relative to the competition they must fend off to make their 2018 seasons a success.
UCF and Bama are entirely different in many ways, but in a few noticeable respects, they are very much the same this year.
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