With the 2020 college football season slowly accelerating toward its limited capacity, the experts are now weighing on with their playoff predictions. And wouldn’t you know it, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 not in the picture (at least for now), a brave few of them think your UCF Knights may finally get their golden ticket to the College Football Playoff, if all goes well.
Among them, College Football News, and friend of the pod Chris Vannini:
The Athletic staff made our College Football Playoff picks.— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) August 31, 2020
My four includes UCF: https://t.co/xVmSUrVFDo pic.twitter.com/MpSDLTnQgj
Shoot, even ESPN’s FPI is giving UCF a better-than-one-in-four shot at making the dance.
So, in a year where only 77 of FBS’ 130 teams are planning to play ball in the fall, what are UCF’s realistic chances of pulling it off? Let’s break it down, step by step:
Goal #1: Win The American
The firs step to having a good season is the one you have the most control over: Winning the conference.
This season, with UConn gone, The American has ditched its divisions but retained its championship game, which will now be contested by the top two teams in the regular season and hosted by the regular season champion.
Two of UCF’s three toughest conference games are on the road - at Memphis and Houston - but the Knights should still be favored in those games. The toughest home game will be against Cincinnati (who is currently ranked ahead of UCF in the AP Poll), but that figures to be a big revenge game prior to the season finale at South Florida on Black Friday.
ESPN’s FPI gives UCF a 22.6% chance of winning all of its games this season, which is better than every team except Clemson. UCF is also at least a 73.5% favorite to win each one of its games according to that same metric, with its toughest test coming at Memphis.
With Dillon Gabriel back for his true sophomore year and UCF returning 18 of 21 players who played 150+ snaps on defense, it’s clear that UCF should improve upon last year’s really-not-at-all-disappointing 10-3 mark.
Goal #2: Win Every Other Game
UCF’s lone non-conference challenge is in the opener against a Georgia Tech team that is not favored to do much this year. But the Yellow Jackets are coming off a huge victory over an admittedly lethargic Florida State team, and even though Tech was picked last in the ACC in the preseason, they are at home and brimming with confidence heading into their home opener.
Tech’s head coach Geoff Collins, was UCF’s linebacker coach in 2008 and 2009 under George O’Leary, and he brough a lot of familiar faces with him to Atlanta, including Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Line Coach Brent Key, and Defensive Coordinator Andrew Thacker. They’re in year two of a full rebuild, but nothing would speed up that rebuild more than a home win over a highly-touted UCF team that comes in as a favorite.
Georgia Tech is UCF’s long non-conference game, at least for the moment. UCF has open dates on October 10th and November 7th, and still could theoretically schedule one more game on one of those dates while preserving a mid-season off week. But nothing has materialized yet. And mid-season scheduling is nothing new for UCF, either - Remember the Austin Peay game in 2017?
Goal #3: Hope someone slips up
UCF will start its season ranked 14th in the AP Top 25, which is its highest head start ever. But even if UCF went undefeated, a 2017/2018 situation is still possible: win the league, win every game, and get left out of the College Football Playoff party.
Among the teams ahead of UCF are six SEC teams, three ACC teams (including North Carolina), three Big 12 teams and Cincinnati. While the ball is in the Knights’ court with regard to the Bearcats, everybody else is not. So the Knights will have to see some of those ahead of them slip up, and perhaps slip up more than once.
Goal #4: Hope the Big Ten Stays Home
I was going to write that the Big Ten staying home (along with the Pac-12) meant the best shot ever for a non-A5 team to make the CFP.
Vote could follow ... orrrrrr ... not. https://t.co/tdM8OCITrc— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) September 13, 2020
As of post time, we don’t know what the Big Ten is going to do. But if they decide to play, that makes the college football season that much more complicated. How many games will they play? When? Where? When will they finish their season? How will they determine a champion? Will all schools play or some?
Of course, if they do, it makes the CFP’s job easier: Pick the four remaining A5 champions.
So UCF, and the rest of the non-A5, is clearly rooting for them to stay home. Whether they do, again, is outside of their control.
So can it happen?
Anything is possible, especially in a season like this. The problem is the same as it has always been: Too many things remain outside UCF’s control.
What does remain in their control are the games in front of them, and in a season as crazy as this one, a New Year’s Six bowl is certainly in play. Whether a playoff berth is also in the cards is dependent on way too many outside factors.
So just enjoy the ride, because you never know.