Marc Daniels: How To Get UCF Into A Power Five League

In 2017, UCF went 12-0 and the College Football Playoff committee thought they were the 12th best team in the country. Six teams ranked ahead of UCF had at least two losses. One of those six, Auburn, had three losses. 

After UCF beat Gus Malzahn's Tigers in the Peach Bowl, the Knights were ranked 6th in the final AP Poll. And even four members of the media agreed with Danny White's national title claim, as UCF got four first place votes. Alabama got the other 57.

Despite a team led by McKenzie Milton and others coming back in 2018, AP voters ranked UCF 21st in the pre-season poll.

UCF ran the table again and sat 12-0 with a 25-game winning streak. What did the playoff committee think? They thought the Knights were the 8th best team in the country.

If Milton doesn't get hurt, does UCF beat LSU in the Fiesta Bowl? Maybe. I think they would have won the game. UCF threw for less than 100 yards in that game and Milton was such a difference maker the offense likely would have had a better day.

What if they won that game and Milton returned for a senior season in 2019? Who knows what the playoff committee would have thought of a team that might have had a winning streak at 39 straight? Would UCF have made the playoffs? I don't know but it would have been an incredible moment for the committee to say no.

I have said a few times that comments by new UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir about scheduling big games and "beating teams you are not supposed to beat" may be a peak into his scheduling philosophy of the future. But it may also be a behind the curtain view of what the playoff committee thinks about G5 teams and what a team would need on its resume to really get a look at earning a top-four ranking.

New UCF coach Gus Malzahn has talked about winning more championships and playing in more New Year's Six Bowl games and making the College Football Playoffs. Malzahn might even believe the path to major bowl games, unbeaten regular seasons and even a playoff berth could be easier at UCF than most Power 5 programs.

Remember, most P5 teams never win 10 games. Most never play in a major bowl game. 

So here's a question: Would you prefer to play in a league where you can compete for a title every year and be in position to play in a major bowl game or be middle-of-the pack or below in a Power 5 league?

The fan in anyone would want their team to win titles and play in big bowl games. But who says if you made a Power 5 league that would be middle-of-the pack?

When the Big XII was flirting with expansion a few years ago, do you know the schools who were against expansion? It wasn't Oklahoma and Texas. The Sooners and Longhorns were not lobbying for anyone, but the programs that opposed growing the league were those in the middle and bottom of the league. Why? Because that group didn't want UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis or Houston coming into the league and making it tougher on them to become bowl eligible. 

I have said for years that if the Knights, Bearcats, Tigers or Cougars got 3-4 years of P5 money, larger recruiting budgets and national exposure they would all be better than numerous current members.

Kansas, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, West Virginia are good programs. But adding a team like UCF in a fertile recruiting ground with a large fanbase in a major media market is not good news for those programs. The same can be said if you added Houston and the Texas-based talent they would get means fewer players for those schools to sign.

But does winning at a high level every year force the Big XII or any other P5 conference to expand? No. There is no model that shows that to be the case.

The last time the Big XII expanded West Virginia and TCU were added. West Virginia was chosen over Louisville. TCU went from the Mountain West to the Big East, for about a day, then to the Big XII. The TCU move was during a time the Big XII was fighting for survival. There were rumors and real plans for the Pac-12 to become the Pac-16 with a run at Texas and possibly Oklahoma. The Big XII had to survive and TCU jumped at the chance to be in a league that made geographical sense and paid millions more.

But every recent expansion by a Power 5 league had nothing to do with the team's success on the field. West Virginia and TCU were good when they jumped to new leagues but many factors led to the decision to add them, not averaging 10 wins a season. 

Maryland and Rutgers got Big Ten invites because of their media market size and the homes they delivered for television networks and their own Big Ten Network. Neither the Terrapins or Scarlet Knights were rolling to wins before they joined the league. The same goes for ACC additions and the Pac 12 and the same for the SEC, who added Texas A&M and Missouri. 

All of those expansions were about adding eyeballs to make media deals more valuable or about keeping the league alive.

So, what would it take for UCF or another G5 program to get into a P5 league?

A 25 or 39 game win streak won't do it. That has already been proven. Even if you averaged 12 wins a year over a decade, there is no path to expansion.

Winning does help. Winning consistently helps. Winning big games helps. Building a brand means bigger ratings when you play on television. That is part of the formula. 

But the biggest part of any path to a Power 5 league is the belief by two companies that you add millions of dollars to the coffers of league members. Those two companies? Disney(who owns ESPN) and FOX.

The two pay billions in rights fees to the Power 5 leagues. If there's come a time for a P5 conference to expand it will likely not be because existing members or a commissioner think it might be a good idea. It will be because Disney and FOX tell them how much it's worth. And if it's worth a few extra million to current members each year, you'd be shocked how fast they support the idea. It doesn't mean the bottom of those leagues would like the idea because, as we explained earlier, it makes it harder for them to get to be bowl eligible. But a few million more a year pays more bills and allows for facilities to be upgraded.

But understand the kind of money we are talking about. In the coming years, Big Ten programs are expected to make $60-70 million per year in media money. The SEC will be close to that figure. Big XII schools are making close to $40 million. Schools in the AAC? About $5-7 million.

Remember, if you add a school to the Big XII they have to be worth more than $40 million per year to make it worth it to existing members. That means over a 5-year deal you would have to be worth an additional $200 million dollars. No one will take a decrease in annual payouts by adding a new school.

If ESPN and FOX believe UCF, or another G5 team, delivers ratings worthy of an increase to sponsor dollars playing in a major conference that paying more to current members is still worth, that's how you get conference expansion.

Orlando is the 17th largest media market. That is appealing and there are many other things UCF has going for it. So, if you win a lot. You hope, and need, lots of people watching your games on television. You hope that includes not just people in Orlando and around the state but around the country. That means real tv ratings that move the needle and make you attractive to networks because larger viewing audiences mean increased sponsor dollars.

UCF will never catch up to Alabama or Ohio State's years of existence. But they can win a lot of games consistently and hope the winning and style of play garners a following. If that happens, then the pitch to join a major league really is to ESPN and FOX. Don't get me wrong, the Big XII would need to be on board, but the easiest way to get votes for expansion is MONEY!

I don't see the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 expanding any time soon. The ACC will keep trying to convince Notre Dame about becoming a football member. I am not sure that happens. If it did, they might seek a 16th member. The Big XII? That is the one to watch. The league's media deal is up in 2024. Negotiations with their current media partners is likely to begin by the end of the 2022 season. I don't know if the league will take a look at expanding. But the biggest question will be, do the media partners believe it's a smart financial move. If they don't, the league will stand pat.

So as Gus Malzahn heads into the 2021 season, the formula might be: Win a lot. Play exciting football. Attract sold out crowds and big audiences on TV. Get to a major bowl game. Then do it again in 2022. Then hope the networks that gave you "The Bachelor" and "The Masked Singer" believe you are worth the millions they would pay if you were added to a league.

Final thought: The maximum score on Pac Man is 3,333,360 points. That means eating every dot, pellet, fruit and enemy and completing 255 levels.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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