A quick thought experiment
Who are Kentucky students, faculty, alumni and other supporters most proud of?
Kentucky football has, despite a late-season tumble, had their best season in arguably forever.
With a New Year’s Day win over Penn State, it’s the first time since 2007 that the Wildcats have finished better than 7-6 in a season and their first 10-win season since 1977. It is also, with a lofty #12 ranking, the first time since 1984 that they finished the season ranked in the final AP Poll.
I think we can agree it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call that a relatively unprecedented level of recent success for Mark Stoops.
How about Kentucky men’s soccer? They made the NCAA tournament this year as a conference champion, finished the season ranked third in the country and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight. This is significant for a team that had made the tournament eight times previously but had never won a game before.
How about South Carolina? Are folks more proud of a football team that had three-straight eleven-win seasons under Steve Spurrier, a men’s soccer team that posted back-to-back conference championships amid a steady run of NCAA Tournament appearances at that same time, or the basketball program that went to the Final Four two years ago?
I know that a larger portion of those schools’ fan bases are aware of the achievements of the football and basketball programs, but the schools themselves celebrate all of those achievements just the same.
Why am I talking about Kentucky and South Carolina? Because while those schools are not Alabama or Georgia, they are still members of the “Big Bad SEC” – except for men’s soccer, where they’ve spent the last 14 seasons as members of Conference USA.
Do South Carolina and Kentucky’s conference titles and postseason successes in soccer count less than it would in football because they play in Conference USA and not the SEC?
I don’t think so, yet “Conference USA” is a dirty word for Power 5 college football fans.
Does South Carolina even have a Final Four trip (and revenue) to hang their hat on if the NCAA Tournament had four teams instead of 68?
The Gamecocks didn’t win their conference in the regular season, and didn’t win the conference tournament either, but because men’s basketball let’s 20% of its teams play a postseason tournament to determine the best team in the country, the Gamecocks got five extra chances to show their skill and came two wins shy of being named that best team.
Opportunity can’t knock when there’s no door
I’m not saying all this to suggest that UAB should be playing in the College Football Playoff because they won Conference USA, or that the CFP should expand to 68 teams in order to be fully inclusive.
I am saying that we’ve given terms like “Group of Five” or “Power Five” or a conference name too much weight, and it’s taking deserving teams like UCF, Boise, Fresno State and others and painting them unfairly into a corner.
Every other division and sport within the NCAA has a postseason tournament, and all you have to do to guarantee entry into that tournament is to win your conference. You don’t have to win your conference to get into the tournament, but that guarantees it.
Every year you see a lot of teams, because they play in a relatively weak conference, reach the tournament and then get exposed as inferior. Sometimes they’re a truly inferior team that wouldn’t have reached the tournament without an automatic bid, other times they just ran into the wrong opponent on the wrong day.
Either way, they were unable to capitalize on an opportunity, but they were at least given that opportunity.
Kentucky and South Carolina play men’s soccer in Conference USA because they’re the only SEC schools that sponsor the sport, and you need at least two more to have a “Southeastern Conference” for men’s soccer. Heck, Kentucky spent a decade in the Mid-American Conference before that.
Despite this “disadvantage”, they are able to play for a national championship because their sport has a postseason tournament that allows them to win that conference and enter… and sometimes even enter just from winning a lot of games… and sometimes even enter just from winning most of their games and playing a strong schedule.
In college football, you can only play for the national championship if you win your conference. Unless the arbiters of that national championship think your schedule or your conference is weak, in which case a stronger team who didn’t win their conference will probably take your spot.
Unless you play in a conference those arbiters think is really weak, in which case you can win not just your conference but every single game you play for two consecutive years, and you still won’t get to play for a championship.
Is it really a national championship if >80% of teams are disqualified as soon as they lose a single game, winning every game doesn’t guarantee you entry, and the selectors of that championship are unabashedly biased towards 50% of teams?
It’s been 20 years since the dawn of the BCS Era, and prior to that “national champion” meant finishing first in the AP Poll.
The UCF Knights are the 18th team in the last 100 seasons to win at least 25 games in a row, and they are only the second team in that crowd to not claim an AP, BCS or CFP national championship.
They are the fourth team to do it since the beginning of the BCS era, and the first whose streak didn’t even include playing for a national championship, let alone winning one.
But the system is imbalanced. You know that.
“Strength of schedule” isn’t really a thing
What is this term, really? UCF was supposedly left out twice because their strength of schedule was weak. They didn’t play good enough teams.
In the American Athletic Conference, they have eight games per year. This means that 75% of their schedule is preset each year, and gives them a good idea of who they will play and where, but there are few guarantees about how good those teams are going to be on a week-to-week basis, let alone whether they’ll be as good next year as they were this year.
The Knights have more control over who, when and where they play in the 25% of their schedule that is out of conference, but only marginally more control over the quality of the opponent.
They caught flak last season for only playing Maryland, FIU and Austin Peay in non-conference play. The Maryland game was the back half of a home-and-home that got moved from 2020/21 to 2016/17 back in 2014; who knows, with Mike Locksley as head coach maybe by 2020 Maryland would be a ranked, quality opponent.
The hurricane canceled a game against a better Georgia Tech team and turned a game against mediocre Maine into one against above-average Austin Peay, but a year later Austin Peay is terrible again and Maine is in the FCS semifinal.
This season the Hurricane actually helped UCF. Their non-conference schedule featured games against a South Carolina State team that was as bad as expected. But what was supposed to be a New Years Six play-in game against FAU wound up being a win against a team that didn’t even make a bowl game.
The game against the Tar Heels was canceled due to a Hurricane again; UCF’s schedule would have actually been worse with that win on the docket after UNC finished the year 2-9, but when the game was scheduled, this was a quality opponent who had just won 11 games for the first time in almost 20 years and was about to win another eight games the next year.
How do we address this gross imbalance? We’ll talk about that more later today in part two.