Over the summer, I was a guest on a radio show where I was asked who would be my picks for the 2019 College Football Playoff in regards to which schools would be the best “for the overall health and interest in college football,” especially after some fans have voiced their frustration about the top-heavy nature of the sport that is dominated by Clemson and Alabama.
One of my four picks was UCF, knowing that in the current four-team playoff model and the struggles the Knights would have compiling enough resume-building wins to make the committee’s cut, we’ll likely never see UCF in the current playoff format.
But my point was that simply having UCF, the closest thing college football could realistically have to a March Madness-style underdog and also arguably one of the most divisive teams in the country, would finally answer the question: Can the Knights can compete at the highest level of the sport?
Because the evidence that the answer is “yes” continues to outweigh the side of “no.”
In a Week 3 slate that didn’t feature a single ranked matchup, we can arguably take the most from UCF’s 45-27 win over Stanford – one of those rare resume-building wins for an AAC school, and a game that was 28-7 and all but over in the blink of an eye.
The Knights had four possessions in the first quarter and they turned all four into touchdowns.
Stanford’s first four drives went to the tune of three-and-out, interception, three-and-out and touchdown.
None of UCF’s first-quarter scoring drives took more than eight plays or two minutes.
The shortest took just one play and two seconds for running back Greg McCrae to run the ball into the end zone from one yard out after a 40-yard interception return from Aaron Robinson.
This – whatever this is that we’re witnessing at UCF – is bigger than Scott Frost, it’s bigger than McKenzie Milton and it’s more than a feel-good Group of Five program.
Potentially the biggest reason UCF’s run can continue this season and beyond is true freshman starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who had more passing yards in Hawaii high school football than Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
Through the first quarter Saturday, he was 8-for-11 passing for 159 yards and three touchdowns, and he finished 22-for-30 for 347 yards and four scores.
At what point do we, the collective college football-consuming populace, need to stop making excuses against UCF and believe, maybe even somewhat unwillingly at first, that the Knights are really good?
I’m not saying they’re in the stratosphere of Clemson and Alabama, or even worthy of joining the cluster of Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State, but why couldn’t UCF be on par with Notre Dame, Florida or Michigan, if not better?
Because UCF’s No. 15 ranking in the latest AP Top 25 poll and its No. 16 ranking in the newest coaches poll is at least a little perplexing.
In Week 2, USC beat Stanford, which played a backup quarterback and was ranked No. 23 at the time, 45-20 at home after falling behind 17-3 and the win vaulted the Trojans into the top 25. The Trojans went 5-7 last season and had survived a scare from Fresno State in Week 1. But their jerseys say USC.
UCF moved up just two spots in the AP poll after beating that same Stanford team a week later, this time with the Cardinal’s starting quarterback K.J. Costello healthy and playing, and the Knights would’ve won by the same margin as the Trojans were it not for a fumble returned for a touchdown by Stanford in the game’s final two minutes.
It’s also worth mentioning UCF led 38-7 at halftime and Stanford scored three times in the fourth quarter to make the deficit appear closer than the game was in real time.
I’ll admit I’ve questioned UCF (and its vocal fan base) during its current run – the Knights are 28-1 since the start of the 2017 season – more so because of the Knights’ schedule than any other reason, but being in the building for their 34-27 win over Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl showed me that team was among the nation’s best.
It’s tough to make many declarative statements from UCF’s 40-32 Fiesta Bowl loss to LSU in January given the number of Tigers defensive players who didn’t play and neither did the injured McKenzie Milton.
You could say LSU dominated that game with 555 total yards of offense to UCF’s 250 but the Knights led by four after the first quarter, trailed by three at half, 10 through three and they lost by eight, so it’s not like they weren’t competitive.
Guess what, LSU, which returned 16 starters from last year’s team, is now ranked in the top four of the AP poll and it’s hard to believe that there’s a 10-team gap between LSU and UCF this season like the polls suggest.
We’ll never know how UCF would fare against an ACC or Pac-12 schedule, let alone competing in one of the two toughest divisions in the sport in the Big Ten East or SEC West, but opposing fans have long clamored for the Knights to play someone, anyone.
Well, UCF did that and it won swiftly and convincingly.
Say what you want about Stanford this year but in the last 10 seasons, the Cardinal has averaged 10.2 wins per season and finished ranked in the AP Top 25 seven times, including five times in the top 12.
Stanford is someone, even if the Cardinal didn’t have a ranking next to its name.
Saturday’s game was just the 11th time since the start of the ’09 season that Stanford has lost by more than 15 points and three of those losses came against Oregon when the Ducks were at the peak of their power.
One came to the Washington team that made the 2016 College Football Playoff and another came to Notre Dame’s playoff team last season. USC, which has recruited better than any program west of Texas and Oklahoma, is responsible for two of the other defeats.
The point being, it typically takes a really special team and/or a ridiculous amount of talent to blow out Stanford. That’s what UCF did Saturday.
Between UCF’s dominance in the last three seasons and the school’s potentially stubborn stance regarding scheduling offers from Power Five schools, it’s unlikely we’ll get to see the Knights play a top-15 team, let alone multiple of them in a season, outside of bowl season.
Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Louisville are the only Power Five opponents they have currently scheduled for future seasons and each school is in the first season of a new head coach’s tenure.
Unfortunately at this point, it might take an incredibly unlikely development like conference realignment or UCF scheduling multiple ranked teams as part of the same season’s non-conference schedule for the Knights to have the chance to “prove” early in the season that they’re top-10 team and a playoff contender.
Or, we’ll have to wait for playoff expansion.
Until then, it will take other “better” teams losing, not just UCF winning, for the Knights to make a serious climb in the rankings. The selection committee ranked UCF No. 8 and No. 12 in its final rankings in the last two seasons, respectively, and at this point, it seems crazy that the Power Five teams ranked just above UCF need to lose three or four games before AP poll voters and college football coaches are comfortable ranking the Knights that high.
The country’s bar for validating UCF might continue to climb but the Knights have proven they’re capable of clearing it.
How Not To Tweet
Florida State’s social media presence is the gift that keeps on giving.
From the people who brought you a poorly Photoshopped countdown to the start of the football season, here’s a deleted-but-screenshotted tweet from the Seminoles’ recruiting account, showing the wrong final score from their game at Virginia.
In a now deleted tweet, FSU Recruiting did not know the score of a game they just lost. pic.twitter.com/1yTMyScUS3
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) September 15, 2019
Is it the end of the world?
No, especially since most of the post-game attention is on the clock operator.
But especially after a 1-2 start to the season, it’s not a great look when your program’s social media department can’t get a final score correct after it has made several other notable gaffes on social media.
Here’s a bonus How Not To Tweet candidate, courtesy of Texas.
— Steve Helwick (@s_helwick) September 15, 2019
The tweet is from June so it’s not exactly new but the Longhorns’ Week 3 opponent, Rice, made sure to capitalize on it Saturday, when the Owls’ band spelled out “2.89” at NRG Stadium.
Rice won the battle but lost the war, 48-13.
On the other end of the spectrum, whoever runs Iowa’s @HawkeyeFootball account deserves a raise after the team’s 18-17 win at Iowa State.
Shortly after the win, the account tweeted “Thanks for having our back!” after Iowa sealed the victory following a Hawkeyes punt that bounced off of a Cyclones’ player’s back after he barreled into the team’s punt returner, creating a fumble that was recovered by Iowa. Then they used Iowa State’s hometown of Ames in a tweet that read “(G)Ames Over.”
When you win a rivalry game, you’re allowed to be as petty as you want on Twitter. Those are the rules.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) September 15, 2019
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) September 15, 2019
Fact or Fiction: Does Maryland have a faulty offensive line?
After burning red-hot in the first two weeks, No. 21 Maryland came crashing down to Earth in a 20-17 loss against Temple in which the Terps gained just five total yards and scored zero points on their 12 goal-to-go snaps.
Maryland has now lost five games in a row when ranked:
- September 14, 2019: Temple def. No. 21 Maryland 20-17
- October 5, 2013: No. 8 Florida State def. No. 25 Maryland 63-0
- November 22, 2008: Florida State def. No. 22 Maryland 37-3
- November 6, 2008: Virginia Tech def. No. 23 Maryland 23-13
- November 18, 2006: No. 20 Boston College def. No. 21 Maryland 38-13
It’s not as if Maryland was been ranked high in the polls in any of those games – the program hasn’t been ranked higher than No. 21 since the 2003 season – but those losses were either completely lopsided or to unranked opponents, or both.
Anyway, at halftime of the Temple-Maryland game, when the Owls led 7-2 (lol), ESPN’s Jesse Palmer said, “Their offensive line is not that good,” despite the Terps putting up 650 total yards of offense against Syracuse and 142 total points in the first two weeks.
Surely Maryland’s offensive line can’t be that bad, right?
I dug into the play-by-play data from the Temple-Maryland game and rewatched some of the Terrapins’ possessions on offense to see what merit Palmer’s statement had. Here’s what I found.
Maryland ran the ball 42 times against Temple and almost two-thirds of those attempts went for three yards or less. Roughly 30 percent of them resulted in no gain or a loss of yards.
|Number of Yards on Rush||Number of Runs||Percent of Runs|
|3 yards or less||26||61.9%|
So while Maryland ranks 13th nationally in rushing yards per game (277 yards/game), 15th in yards per carry (5.99) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (12), keep in mind that those stats are inflated by games against Howard (FCS) and Syracuse, which was ranked No. 70 nationally in the SP+ rankings after Week 2.
The Terrapins allowed four sacks on Saturday after allowing just one in their first two games, which means that on 9.3 percent of their drop-backs Saturday, quarterback Josh Jackson was sacked.
For reference, Akron, which has allowed an FBS-worst 18 sacks this season, has had 136 drop-backs this season, meaning 13.2 percent of the Zips’ drop-backs have resulted in a sack.
So against Temple, whose defense ranked just No. 57 in the SP+ rankings after Week 2, Maryland allowed a sack rate that would be among the worst nationally if continued over the course of an entire season.
On the second play from scrimmage, when Maryland had scripted the offensive sequence for its opening drive, Temple rushed four against seven blockers and the Owls immediately got to Jackson thanks to an untouched rusher off the edge (shown below).
On the first of Maryland’s three failed 4th & Goal attempts, running back Anthony McFarland Jr. took a hand-off up the middle and he was hit by three defenders almost a yard behind the line of scrimmage.
Speaking of McFarland, this examination is in no way a slight against him. In fact, he might thrive in spite of running behind an offensive line that’s far from perfect.
On McFarland’s longest run of the afternoon, a 33-yard gain on 3rd & 1, a Temple linebacker was able to sprint into Maryland’s backfield – too far past the play, in fact – and McFarland was able to cut to his left and get extra yards thanks to the downfield blocking of his wide receivers. McFarland couldn’t have rushed for 132 yards on 26 carries yesterday without open lanes from his line but he deserves credit for numerous broken tackles and fighting for extra yards with great lower-body strength despite being just 5-9.
Temple was repeatedly able to get pressure and clog running lanes between the tackles with its four-man front, and sometimes an extra linebacker, rather than needing to repeatedly blitz six or seven defenders.
That could be a concern for Maryland since non-conference play is over and the Terrapins still have to run through a backloaded Big Ten East gauntlet featuring Penn State (Week 5), Michigan (Week 10), Ohio State (Week 11) and Michigan State (Week 14).
There aren’t a lot of ready-made, easily identifiable stats to grade and judge offensive line play but after taking a closer look at Temple’s win over Maryland, Jesse Palmer appears to be on to something.
Despite the Terps putting up some eye-popping stats in the first two weeks, Maryland’s offensive line might just not be that good, which becomes more noticeable when it shares the field with an adequate FBS opponent.
Previously on “Fact or Fiction?”