As UCF celebrates a new playoff format that will give 12-teams a chance to win the national championship there may be something that will elude the Knights that had been a priority. While the path to making the postseason is now a bit more clear for UCF, the road to a major conference may be closed and stay closed for a long time.
One thing the new model for the college football playoff will do is eliminate expansion by any P5 league for a while....a long time.
Yes, the Knights know if they win their conference and go 13-0 or 12-1(not an easy thing to do) they will likely make the playoff. But is making the playoff every other season better than being in a P5 league and the financial benefit that comes with it?
Duke football is no closer to the playoff with an expanded field but they know even if they go winless for the next decade they will still get that big check ACC schools receive every year. Kansas football can continue to be awful at football but still reap the rewards of being in a league with Oklahoma and Texas.
In the new media deal the AAC has with ESPN, UCF will receive about $7M a year. With other monies from bowl payouts and NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament distribution that figure might get to around $8-9M. Add expected new money from a larger TV deal for the 12-team playoff and the Knights could get themselves around $10-12M a year. That is a huge difference to the dollars the school was making about a decade ago. But it trails any P5 league by tens of millions of dollars a year and there lies the issue.
A few years back the Big XII did more than kick the tires on expansion. It asked schools like UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston to show them what they could offer. As the conference studied expansion, it came down to how much money are you willing to pay to get in the league or how much would you take less to get an invite. What it also led to was- is any potential new member going to increase the Big XII's current media deal.
In the end, the conference punted on expansion. But the Big XII's current media contract is set to expire in a few years and that has led to speculation about possible expansion again. Would the SEC possibly think about the value of Oklahoma and Texas? What if those two bolted, would the Big XII be nothing more than AAC 2.0? What about the ACC? With Notre Dame playing in the league last season, the ACC had 15 teams. For now, the Irish remain an independent and would the conference think 16 is better than 14?
For years, UCF and it's athletic leadership talked about trying to get into a P5 league. Why? MONEY. The ACC currently is paying more than $30M per team. That amount over the course of 5 years would be about $100M more than UCF stands to make over that same time. An extra $100M pays a lot of bills at UCF and helps build new facilities and grows recruiting budgets...and on and on and on.
The gap will only increase in years to come. New media deals in the SEC and Big Ten will see those schools get between $60-80M per year. Big XII teams currently are making about $35-40M and expect that to jump to $50-60 in a new media deal. That projection is based on the current membership of the conference. The only way the Big XII or ACC would expand is if someone or a pair teams will increase that yearly nugget. No one is interested in adding teams that don't increase their money pool.
Another reason the Big XII members would oppose expansion is; why add someone good in football? If you are a middle of the pack team in the Big XII, why add a football program in a fertile recruiting area and give them resources to blow past you in the rankings of the conference. If you are currently finishing 6th each year, do you want to finish 7th?
With media analysts projecting the new college football playoff to be worth about $2B a year, projections show P5 schools may be looking at an additional $10-12M per school in the new format. Let's say Big XII schools after a new media deal and new playoff money get $60-70M per year, would adding UCF be worth so much that existing members would get $80M per year? Not likely.
The playoff expansion likely closes the door on expansion for the foreseeable future for P5 leagues. That means UCF will still need to operate in a world where it is trying to compete on a national level with programs getting significantly more money. Yes, the new playoff format has increased the Knight's chances of making the playoff and winning a national title but they will need to do so with a much smaller budget. That does not mean UCF can't win a national title. If you make the playoff, you just need to win four games and the size of your athletic budget means nothing at that point.
Gus Malzahn has preached that UCF doesn't view itself as G5 or P5 and that the Knights will determine their brand. He is right. Winning creates your image but there has been a bias in college football and the media and even playoff committee members have shown their preference for P5 brands over anything else.
Do fans really care about all this anyway? UCF fans may prefer a better chance of going 13-0 or 12-1 in the AAC over being a middle of the pack team in the Big XII. But would UCF be a middle of the pack team in that league? I've said for years that if you gave UCF, Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston and maybe a few others the same money P5 teams are getting they may become more than middle of the pack teams. Location, facilities, recruiting and fan base would give UCF an advantage in competing over a period of years. Give UCF $60M a year and give them 4-5 seasons and my guess is they could compete in just about any league.
But while there is excitement about how the new playoff model gives the Knights a better chance to make the playoff and play for a title, the idea of an invitation from a P5 league will likely have to wait and it might be a long time. For now, Gus Malzahn and his Knights can and should continue to paint their own image and sell the idea of being able to make the playoffs often and compete for a title...but they will need to do it with a smaller pot of cash compared to the teams they will try to beat.
Final note: What's the value of being in a P5 league? According to the USA Today's annual review of revenue in college athletics for 2019 among public schools, Houston ranked 53rd, UCF 55th and Cincinnati 56th in the country. Teams 1-52 all came from P5 leagues.