America loves an underdog story. There’s a good reason why many of our favorite sports movies are some form of underdog story, or historical fiction taking significant artistic liberties to make it more like an underdog story (looking at you “The Blind Side” producers).
Furthermore, there’s a good reason why the most iconic Olympic moment in American history is “The Miracle on Ice”, as opposed to the “Dream Team”, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis or any of the USWNT’s myriad Olympic accomplishments. Aside from the “Communism vs. Freedom” storyline, hockey was a sport the U.S. was never supposed to win, making it all the more compelling when we actually did. With all of this in mind, it is confusing to me that the vast majority of college football fans in America had no interest in rooting for or advocating for a UCF playoff bid. UCF should be a great underdog story, so why didn’t America support it, or even want it?
It’s possible that America didn’t embrace the Knights because they weren’t big enough underdogs. Scott Frost did win a national championship as a player. The University of Central Florida is the largest university in the country and did win the Fiesta Bowl a mere four years ago. Plus, the football program entered 2017 with the 60th and 65th two- and five-year recruiting ranks respectively, which is in the top half of FBS and pretty good for a Group of Five team.
The flaw with that argument, aside from the fact that most college football fans probably did not know the last two facts, is that UCF is also two years removed from an 0-12 season. They were so bad, in fact, that a local bar gave away free beer during every UCF game until they won a game in a streak lasted almost a full calendar year.
If that isn’t enough here is an excerpt from the UCF preview in the Athlon Sports preseason magazine: “With questions at several key positions, it’s likely too early to start thinking about a conference championship, but another bowl trip should be achievable if the offensive line takes the necessary steps forward and there isn’t too big of a drop-off on defense.” Think about that for a second. They should make a bowl game if the offensive line improves and if the defense doesn’t regress too much. Just as a reminder, 78 FBS programs will be playing in bowl games this season. So, a team who went from a probable bowl team as long as two substantial ifs come to fruition, became one of the top 12 (according to the CFB Playoff committee) teams in the country. We can throw out the argument that they weren’t enough of an underdog story.
The other possibility is that UCF made us too uncomfortable to appreciate it. One obvious and negative aspect of American culture, that has become increasingly evident in 2017, is that we hate being uncomfortable. As much as we love underdog stories, we only like them as long as they don’t shake things up too much. One of the most underrated and undervalued underdog stories in American sports history is the 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team and that’s mostly because it shook the foundation of American culture at the time. Now, I’m not trying to compare the perception of Group of Five teams versus Power Five teams to the Civil Rights Movement, but I am saying that underdog stories that go against the traditionally held beliefs of the day tend to lack the support of their simpler counterparts.
Stemming from the last idea, a big reason for the lack of UCF supporters is because of the widely held belief that Group of Five teams are simply and inherently inferior to Power Five teams. Furthermore, the belief is also generally that there is a substantial margin between the Power Five and the Group of Five. This is a foundational belief among college football fans (and apparently the CFB Playoff Committee) that is being clung to like a life raft despite the glaring cracks that have been appearing for the last decade starting with App State vs. Michigan and Boise State vs. Oklahoma.
Is there a talent gap between the Power Five and the Group of Five? Yes. How big is that gap? We don’t know and as long as the Group of Five is denied a seat at the table we won’t know. Allowing them one New Year’s Six game a year gives the “Power Five Is Unequivocally Superior” believers the opportunity to cite small sample size and lack of Power Five motivation to explain away any losses. This brings me to the most important question: Are we so sure about this gap that we should continue denying Group of Five teams a shot at a title on the premise that we “already know” they aren’t the best? I don’t believe so. America doesn’t agree.
There is another possibility that I’m not sure anyone is ready to admit. Maybe we don’t love underdog stories anymore. Maybe this was just one more dogma-shattering event we weren’t prepared to handle in 2017. Either way, we missed a golden opportunity to let a great college football underdog story unite us in what has, by all accounts, been a disastrous year for America and unity.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Willie J. Allen, Jr./Associated Press