Florida’s 2-for-1 Offer for UCF Will Tell Us What the Knights Value and How They View Themselves

Florida Coach Dan Mullen said Friday that the Gators offered UCF a two-for-one deal in which Florida would host UCF twice and the Knights would host the Gators once as part of a three-game scheduling arrangement.

Mullen said it is a typical offer that his programs have made to non-Power Five schools during his time at Florida and previously Mississippi State. In May, the Gators announced a three-game series with another American Athletic Conference opponent, South Florida, which will host Florida in 2021 before traveling to Gainesville in 2022 and 2025.

“I think we offered them a two-for-one,” Mullen said of the deal offered to UCF, “like we do most schools in their position, which I think is really a good deal. They’d have an opportunity to have an SEC school play at their place.”

Therein lies the look-in-the-mirror moment for UCF, which has won 25 straight games and established itself as a top-10 team both this December and last.

After being left out of the last two College Football Playoff fields — and not even receiving serious consideration, given that it finished at No. 12 and No. 8 in the final CFP rankings — UCF has a decision to make.

Does it want to give itself a better chance of making the playoff in a system that inherently favors teams from the Power Five, plus Notre Dame? Or does it view itself as an equal to schools in the Power Five — even if the playoff selection committee doesn’t — and refuse an offer that isn’t a home-and-home?

Answering “yes” to the former provides the Knights with the opportunity to address the main critique of UCF in the last two seasons: its schedule. This fall the Knights played South Carolina State (FCS), Florida Atlantic and Pittsburgh as part of its non-conference schedule. A road game against North Carolina was canceled due to weather.

Last season UCF played Florida International, Maryland and Austin Peay (FCS). A game scheduled against Maine, another FCS opponent, was canceled in order to reschedule a game against Memphis that had previously been canceled.

“[Florida Athletic Director] Scott (Stricklin) brought it up to them,” Mullen said. “If they want to try to toughen their schedule, it’d be great. It’d be a good opportunity for them if they want to take it.”

UCF’s 2018 non-conference opponents have a combined 17-19 record entering bowl season. The canceled game against North Carolina, which went 2-9 this year, would have made that mark even worse. The Knights’ non-conference opponents last season went a combined 20-17 and eight of those wins came from FCS Austin Peay.

A “yes” for the latter of the two questions posed above, meaning turning down the two-for-one offer, keeps the status quo for UCF.

A significant portion of UCF’s fan base would surely love it if its school rejected the offer from the in-state Gators because it was a two-for-one and not a home-and-home. The Knights probably view themselves as an equal to Florida, if not superior due to their record the last two seasons.

Plus, if UCF goes undefeated with its current non-conference scheduling practices, it can claim a national championship — like it did last season — after it gets left out of the playoff. It can be both an underdog and a defiant winner, which could potentially change the conversation about the future of the playoff.

Back-to-back undefeated seasons, both of which would end with a bowl win over a ranked SEC team (if UCF beats No. 11 LSU in the Fiesta Bowl), could spark more discussion about the expansion of the playoff to eight teams.

There’s not necessarily a “right” answer for UCF to Florida’s offer or similar offers it may receive from Power Five schools. It just depends on what UCF values and how it views itself.

A lot of weight can be placed on UCF’s non-conference scheduling because the rest of the American Athletic Conference has done the Knights few favors. If we look at UCF’s recent predecessors — schools from outside the Power Five that have gone undefeated and finished near the top of the AP poll — several had big wins over ranked opponents in conference play.

In 2008, Utah beat No. 11 TCU and No. 16 BYU in November. TCU won at No. 6 Utah in 2010.

The Utes finished 13-0 and No. 2 in the final AP poll, as did the Horned Frogs two years later.

UCF’s wins over ranked opponents in the last two regular seasons were against No. 22 South Florida last year and then No. 16 Memphis in the AAC Championship, along with a victory over No. 19 Cincinnati on November 17 this year.

Memphis finished at No. 20 in the final College Football Playoff rankings last season and no other AAC teams were ranked in the playoff selection committee’s final rankings this year.

In 2009, Boise State finished the season 14-0, including a win over No. 16 Oregon in Week 1 and the Ducks finished at No. 11 in the AP poll.

TCU beat No. 24 Oregon State in its season opener in 2010. Even though the Beavers finished 5-7, starting a season with a win over a ranked Power Five team provides immediate legitimacy for a non-Power Five school — for lack of a better word.

Winning at Michigan in Week 1 certainly helped Utah’s perception in 2008, even though the Wolverines finished the season 3-9.

That brings us back to Florida’s two-for-one offer. The Gators finished at No. 10 in the final CFP rankings and they’ve peaked inside of the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll in 23 of the last 29 years.

Even if this potential three-game series is scheduled for many years from now, as non-conference college football games often are, Florida’s history and its 9-3 record in the first year of the Dan Mullen era suggest the Gators will probably represent a potential quality win for UCF. It’s the type of win that hasn’t been made available by UCF’s conference opponents or the non-conference foes it has played recently.

Florida doesn’t need to offer a home-and-home series, just like UCF doesn’t need to accept a two-for-one. But if the Knights truly want to make a push for the four-team College Football Playoff, they would likely need at least one win — and likely two or three — over a team of the caliber of Florida.