Written by Justin Prince.
Tonight the Alabama Crimson Tide will take on conference rival the Georgia Bulldogs to determine who will be crowned national champions.
Of course, one team has already claimed the title for themselves. The University of Central Florida wrapped up its football season with a 34-27 victory over the Auburn Tigers on New Years Day.
The win gave the Knights a perfect 13-0 record, the only undefeated team in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), and a win over a team that beat both teams playing in tonight’s actual national championship game.
I live in Orlando, just a few miles from UCF’s campus. Since the team’s victory over Auburn, the school’s athletic administration has been in overdrive to hammer home the claim that the Knights are the true national champs.
There are billboards along Interstate 4, television and radio ads, a full page spread in the Orlando Sentinel, and even a Disney World parade to celebrate and commemorate the Knights as the kings of college football.
It’s been an all-out media and marketing blitz.
Now, I disagree with UCF’s championship declaration, for the same reason I disagree with the American Athletic Conference’s “Power 6” claims because I think it makes the Knights look like a desperate high school kid pleading for a chance to sit at the cool table. I do sympathize with UCF’s predicament, however, as any system where a team can go unbeaten and not even have a chance at the championship is a bogus one.
But, the Knights aren’t the first Group of 5 team to go undefeated and they may not even be the best. In fact, since 1998, when the NCAA finally decided to give its highest division of college football a championship game instead of letting the Coaches and AP Polls decide the champion, there have been seven other “G5” teams finish with a zero in the loss column.
So how does UCF stack up in my opinion to the other G5 juggernauts that have came before them? Let’s rank them and found out.
8. Tulane Green Wave (1998)
Coached by Tommy Bowden and led by quarterback Shaun King the Green Wave was one of the nation’s highest scoring offenses in 1998 averaging nearly 45 points per game. The Conference USA champs would immediately bring questions upon the NCAA’s new championship method the Bowl Championship Series better known as the BCS. Tulane blew through its competition only having one game decided by less than two scores a 28-22 victory over then conference rival Louisville. But, Tulane was left on the outside looking in by the new system where its weak schedule was used as means to justify the team’s exclusion. The Green Wave played zero teams that were ranked in the top 25 and only one team from an automatic qualifying conference (the ’98 version of the Power 5), Rutgers, who finished the year with a losing record. Still, in the first season of the BCS Tulane manage to throw a significant wrench into the new system and finished the season ranked 7th in both the Coaches and AP Poll.
7. Utah Utes (2004)
Urban Meyer coached this version of the Utes to a perfect record in 2004 and burst onto the scene as one of the premier names in college football coaching. Meyer would go on to win national titles with Florida (2006, 2008) and Ohio State (2014) but ironically the only other undefeated team he would ever coach was a 2012 Ohio State team banned from post season play by the NCAA for rules violations stemming from prior to Meyer’s arrival. But, unlike the Green Wave the Utes weren’t total locked out of the BCS. While they wouldn’t get an opportunity at the national championship they would get a shot at a top 20 Pittsburgh team in the Fiesta Bowl, becoming the first school outside of a qualifying conference to play a BCS bowl game. Utah dominated the Panthers 35-7 and finished the season ranked 6th in the country. The Utes scored an average of 42 points per game while giving up less than 20 a contest on route to helping popularize the spread option offensive crazy that was sweeping college football at the time.
6. Boise State Broncos (2006)
The Broncos who had moved up to Division 1A now known as FBS in 1996 had already had some success making six bowl appearances and winning six conference titles before the 2006 season. Former offensive coordinator Chris Petersen was named the head coach and in his first year at the helm he led Boise State to a perfect 13-0 record. The season was culminated by one of the exciting upsets in NCAA football history. The Broncos were only the second non-BCS school to ever make a BCS bowl game and were more than a touchdown underdog to traditional power the Oklahoma Sooners. Using a creative offense and several trick plays including the “Statue of Liberty” on a two-point conversion in overtime the Broncos stunned the nation defeating the Sooners 43-42.
5. Boise State Broncos (2009)
The Broncos came into the season with high expectations and didn’t disappoint opening the year with a home victory over a nationally ranked Oregon team on ESPN. Boise would breeze through its schedule with one exception a mid-season out of conference clash with the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes. The Broncos would win 28-21 and then resume blowing out the rest of its competition by an average score of 44-17 until facing third ranked TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The Horned Frogs were favored against the sixth ranked Broncos but Boise State’s defense forced Andy Dalton into three interceptions and held on to win 17-10. It was TCU’s first loss of the season and the first time two non-BCS teams made it into a BCS bowl. Boise ended the season ranked number 4.
4. UCF Knights (2017)
The 2017 Knights have a very interesting case because of the fact that they not only were the only undefeated team this year but because they beat an Auburn squad that defeated both Georgia and Alabama. UCF is also the first undefeated team in the FBS since 2013’s Florida State Seminoles. Like every team on this list the Knight’s schedule is the justification for leaving the UCF outside the picture and to be fair I don’t think many people thought they should have made the College Football Playoff. But, the 12th place ranking UCF received was a slap in the face. Even if the playoffs were expanded to the top eight teams like some have suggested the committee’s ranking still wouldn’t have included the undefeated team from Central Florida. As far as what “G5” programs can do there isn’t much more than what the Knights did. A Hurricane cancelled a game against the ACC’s Georgia Tech and the Knight’s crushed the Big 10’s Maryland. They also defeated six bowl eligible teams including 10-win teams Memphis (twice) and USF in the regular season before trumping Auburn in the Peach Bowl. No sports fan is going to take their national title claims seriously but the 2017 edition of the Knights proved on the field that their football team should be.
3. Marshall Thundering Herd (1999)
Utah and Boise State got to play in BCS games even if they never were really considered for a title shot. That opportunity was in large part because of the success of the aforementioned Tulane team in 1998 and the Thundering Herd in 1999. Loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, Marshall started its season off with a win in Death Valley over the Clemson Tigers of the ACC. The Thundering Herd were technically favorites in the game, but the 13-10 victory felt like an upset when the Herd had to drive 74 yards and then some as the Herd was tagged with several penalties on it’s game winning drive as time winded down. The three point victory would be the same margin of victory that eventual national champion Florida State would beat the Tigers by seven weeks later on the same field. Marshall would go on to defeat WAC Champion Brigham Young 21-3 in the Motor City Bowl and finish its season ranked 10th nationally. Marshall’s offense wasn’t as prolific as some of the other teams on this list though it had plenty of firepower, scoring 35 points per contest. However, the Herd defense is the best on the list, allowing just 10.5 points per game. The team’s quarterback, Chad Pennington, was a Heisman finalist and a first round NFL draft pick and would be joined in the 2000 draft by three of his teammates: defensive back Rogers Beckett, running back Doug Chapman and receiver James Williams.
2. TCU Horned Frogs (2010)
Before TCU and Utah bolted for Power 5 conferences the Mountain West was playing some really good football. That statement is highlighted by the fact that the Horned Frogs mid season clash with the Utes pitted two teams ranked in the top 10 in the country against each other. TCU was ranked fourth and Utah was ranked sixth and the game basically decided who would be the Mountain West champion. Now how does a league with two top 10 teams not get more respect than the Mountain West was getting circa 2010, I don’t know? But after the Horned Frogs pummeled the Utes 47-7 and avoided a scare the next week against San Diego State 40-35 the stage was all but set for a high profile clash with Big 10 power Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. In a tight game throughout TCU managed to hold off the Badgers comeback attempt and won 21-19. The Horned Frogs finished the year ranked second in the country. Led by Andy Dalton the Horned Frogs offense put up 41 points per game and finished the year with the nation’s top ranked scoring defense only giving up 12 points per game. TCU no longer has to worry about being left out now that they’ve made the transition into a Big 12 program.
1. Utah Utes (2008)
Like TCU the Utes are now part of a power conference and an undefeated season now would assure them a place at the table. But, the 2008 Utes weren’t given that same luxury. The Mountain West champs started the season off with a two-point win over nationally ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor. Beat a nationally ranked Oregon State team that was coming off an upset victory of then top ranked USC and downed both #11 TCU and #14 BYU at home before earning the right to take on Nick Saban and Alabama. Utah dominated the Crimson Tide 31-17 beating Bama worse than Florida, the eventual national champions in 2008 did in the SEC title game. Of course the P5 talking heads and fans say that Alabama didn’t take the game seriously and didn’t want to be there due to disappointment of missing out on a chance at the national title. But, Saban’s teams don’t like to lose and they rarely get decimated in such convincing fashion. This 2008 Utah team was for real and played one of the toughest schedules a “G5” team could play with four ranked opponents in the regular season. In the final rankings the polls were split. The Coaches had the Utes ranked 4th while the writers at the AP ranked them number 2. But, I’m just going to rank them as the best non-power conference team to ever go undefeated in the era where a national title game was played.