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Yes, UCF Can Still Make an NY6 Bowl

Here’s how a two-loss Knights team can play on New Year’s Day.

Derek Warden

The UCF Knights return from a bye week full of soul-searching after a second loss in 2019 to face ECU on Saturday. The week off comes not a moment too soon, with the Knights at 4-2, 1-1 in The American, and out of the top 25 for the first time since 2017.

After being humbled at Cincinnati, it’s easy to simply dismiss the Knights as totally out of the race for a New Year’s Day bowl game. But considering I like to bet against public sentiment, I’m going to be the optimist here and show you how the Knights, even with two losses, can be the Group of Five conference representative in the NY6 and still play in the Cotton Bowl this season. Granted, it won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.

Here’s how it can happen:

1. UCF must win out.

The Knights are right at the halfway point of the regular season, and find themselves tied for third in the American East Division with South Florida. The bottom line is UCF has to win all of their remaining games to finish 10-2 overall and 7-1 in The American.

Here are the Knights’ last six games:

UCF’s Last Six Games

Date H/A Opponent Record AAC Record ESPN FPI W%
Date H/A Opponent Record AAC Record ESPN FPI W%
10/19 Home ECU 3-3 0-2 97.3%
10/26 Away Temple 5-1 2-0 80.2%
11/2 Home Houston 2-4 0-2 88.3%
11/8 Away Tulsa 2-4 0-2 87.7%
11/23 Away Tulane 5-1 2-0 68.6%
11/29 Home S. Florida 3-3 1-1 93.6%
UCF’s ESPN FPI Data

Note that according to ESPN’s FPI, UCF has at least an 80% chance of winning five of their remaining six games, with the toughest contest - at Tulane - still favoring the Knights with a 68.6% chance of a victory. Yes, these percentages will change as the season progresses, but right now, those are pretty good odds.

Should UCF win out, that would also give the Knights victories over Tulane (currently just barely outside the top 25) and Temple (which would give UCF a key tiebreaker in head-to-head play, should it come to that

The FPI also gives the Knights a 36.7% chance to win out, and a 9.2% chance of winning the league outright.

So we’re saying there’s a chance! But:

2. Cincinnati has to lose, most likely twice.

The chief problem for UCF is the loss at Cincinnati last time out, which means the Knights would lose a tiebreaker should UCF and Cincy both finish the regular season with one loss in the conference. Therefore, for UCF to win the East, the Bearcats have to lose twice.

Here’s the Bearcats’ remaining schedule, coupled with their win probability according to ESPN’s FPI:

Cincinnati’s Last Six Games

Date H/A Opponent Record AAC Record ESPN FPI W%
Date H/A Opponent Record AAC Record ESPN FPI W%
10/19 Home Tulsa 2-4 0-2 90.9%
11/2 Away ECU 3-3 0-2 92.9%
11/9 Home UConn 1-5 0-3 99.0%
11/16 Away S. Florida 3-3 1-1 81.1%
11/23 Home Temple 5-1 2-0 84.5%
11/29 Away Memphis 5-1 1-1 52.3%
Cincinnati’s ESPN FPI

Now, those aren’t good odds if you’re UCF. But the key thing to note here is Cincinnati’s three toughest games remaining on their schedule are their last three: at South Florida, home to Temple and at Memphis.

And before you laugh me out of the room on counting South Florida as a tough game, bear in mind it’s on the road, and the Bulls are showing signs of life after a 1-3 start, thanks largely to their win at home against (a granted 2-4) BYU team. Should the Bulls surprise anyone, Cincy at home could be it.

But even after that, the Bearcats still have to play Temple and Memphis within six days of one another. Even assuming they roll through the next four - and they should - Temple is no easy out, and then there’s a quick turn-around before a road game at Memphis, who may have a lot to play for in the crowded West.

FPI gives the Bearcats a 22.1% chance of winning out (less than UCF’s 36.7%), even with a 59.9% chance of winning the conference. So the Bearcats are going to have to earn that American Football Championship berth, if they want it.

Now, there is a remote chance UCF could win a three-way tiebreaker if Cincinnati loses just once. Here are The American’s tiebreaking procedures for a three-way tie:

Image: The American

So if:

  1. UCF wins at Temple October 26th,
  2. Temple wins at Cincinnati November 23rd, and
  3. All three teams win the rest of their games,

There’s an outside shot UCF could leap Cincinnati and stay ahead of Temple in the CFP Rankings and thus win the division (more on that later). But that’s a HUGE if.

3. UCF has to win The American Championship in convincing fashion, preferably over #19 SMU.

So let’s say UCF wins out and Cincy drops two of their last six to give the Knights the American East crown. Then comes the next test: The American Football Championship Game.

Right now, the West division is an absolute mess, but in a good way:

American West Standings

Team Record AAC ESPN FPI SP+ Win Out%
Team Record AAC ESPN FPI SP+ Win Out%
#19 SMU 6-0 2-0 42 39 2.7%
Tulane 5-1 2-0 44 38 0.6%
Navy 4-1 2-1 64 41 0.1%
Memphis 5-1 1-1 40 24 1.8%
Tulsa 2-4 0-2 90 77 0.0%
Houston 2-4 0-2 69 73 0.3%
Rankings: FPI, SP+

Clearly the strength of the league is in the West right now. Note that half of the six are in the top 40 of Bill Connelly’s SP+, and Navy is at #41.

With SMU and Memphis not playing UCF this year, those two teams right now have the best shot at winning the West, by my personal estimation. They play each other on November 2nd in the Liberty Bowl.

UCF needs to face the best possible opponent in the American Championship, should they get there, and right now that looks like SMU, although it could be - SURPRISE! - Memphis, if the Tigers knock off the Mustangs and win out (they also have Temple and Tulane on the slate at home October 19th and November 30th, respectively). It stands to reason that the survivor of that November 2nd contest could be ranked and hosting the AACCG, although I’m still not counting Tulane or Navy out yet.

Should UCF get to the Championship and then soundly beat SMU/Memphis/Tulane/Navy, quite likely on the road, that would be the first verifiable feather in the Knights’ NY6 cap, since the G5 representative is the highest-ranked conference champion from those leagues.

A win - and especially a convincing win on the road - would likely get the Knights at least back in the top 25 with that golden ticket in hand.

4. Boise State and Appalachian State have to lose, preferably as late as possible.

This is the hardest part, because it’s the furthest from UCF’s control.

Here are the remaining teams in the non-A5 conferences with one loss or fewer, with UCF thrown in for reference:

Non-A5 New Year’s Six Bowl Contenders

Team Record Conference AP Coaches SP+ ESPN FPI Conf W% Win Out%
Team Record Conference AP Coaches SP+ ESPN FPI Conf W% Win Out%
Boise St. 6-0 Mountain West #14 #13 42 27 64.8% 23.3%
SMU 6-0 American #19 #19 39 42 14.0% 2.7%
Appalachian St. 5-0 Sun Belt #24 #24 54 51 61.3% 4.8%
Cincinnati 5-1 American #21 #21 36 28 59.9% 22.1%
Temple 5-1 American RV #25 40 76 0.7% 0.1%
Tulane 5-1 American RV RV 38 44 6.2% 0.6%
Memphis 5-1 American RV RV 24 40 6.6% 1.8%
La Tech 5-1 C-USA RV RV 93 84 18.2% 3.6%
UAB 5-1 C-USA - - 92 98 3.2% 0.2%
San Diego St. 5-1 Mountain West RV RV 79 68 8.1% 1.2%
Navy 4-1 American - RV 41 64 3.3% 0.1%
UCF 4-2 American RV RV 20 21 9.2% 36.7%
Rankings: SP+, FPI

A few things to note here:

  • Boise State is the likeliest to win out and win their conference, followed by Cincinnati.
  • UCF has the likeliest chance to win out, which is key for them even getting within sniffing distance of the NY6.
  • Appalachian State is the likeliest team to win the Sun Belt, but they still have South Carolina on their slate, and the Sun Belt is pretty weak this year, which hurts their Strength of Schedule.
  • Louisiana Tech is likeliest to win C-USA, but if you thought the Sun Belt was weak...WOOF.
  • In terms of rankings that look at on-field play, SP+ and FPI both LOVE UCF.

Assuming everything breaks UCF’s way in the final six games, even if they beat SMU in the American Championship, they still need Boise to lose at least once, and preferably as late as possible. The key games to watch look like this:

  • November 9th vs. Wyoming (4-2, 1-1 MWC)
  • November 23 at Utah State (3-2, 2-0 MWC) - A loss here could knock the Broncos out of first in their own division and give USU the tiebreaker.
  • Mountain West Championship, December 7th at a campus site, likely against San Diego State, Hawai’i or Nevada

None of these will be easy, and any of them could cost the Broncos a shot at the NY6, because remember, it’s the highest-ranked conference champion who gets the bid. So even if Boise wins out in the regular season and loses in the MWC Championship, that’s the end of their NY6 hopes.

Thus the door would remain ajar for the American Champion, assuming:

5. Hope the CFP Committee sees the light.

Remember that the rankings used to determine the bid are the CFP Committee’s rankings, and we just have no earthly way of gleaning what they’re thinking now (or ever).

The first CFP Rankings will be revealed Tuesday, November 5th.

The Bottom Line

The fact is most of this stuff is beyond UCF’s control. What UCF can control, however, is what they do on the field in the games scheduled in front of them, starting with Saturday against ECU.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that UCF could win out and not even get to the conference championship game. Such is the nature of conference play, where Cincinnati got the big home win when they needed it. Should they win the East, UCF has no option but to tip their caps.

But this is college football. Anything is possible. We’ve learned that in spades over the past three seasons with UCF. But what they have to do, as much as we hate hearing it over and over again from Josh Heupel, is just focus on going #1and0.

After that, let the chips fall where they may.