ORLANDO, Fla. — Follow along, everyone. McKenzie Milton wants to make this as simple as possible.
Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh in October by five lousy points. Two weeks earlier, UCF beat Pitt by 31.
“You look at the [Pitt] film against us and Notre Dame,” says Milton, UCF’s star quarterback. “You can’t tell me Notre Dame is a better team than us.”
He is asked: You don’t see a difference?
“Oh, I see a difference,” Milton says. “We’re better.”
There you have it. Forget about hokey national championship marketing ploys or a contrived idea that the American Athletic should be the sixth power conference.
This is about the eye test, the very thing the College Football Playoff selection committee uses to determine the four teams for its annual show that produces the sport’s national champion.
It’s not about conference championships or good wins versus bad losses or any other “metric” or “entry point”—the big-boy words the committee uses to make you think they’re doing heavy lifting behind those closed doors. It’s about sitting in front of a television in a posh hotel in suburban Dallas and voting on the eye test.
Only the notion of that test stops at the doorstep of UCF’s growing monster of a program.
Two seasons, 22 straight wins, zero CFP juice.
Notre Dame is No. 3 in the CFP poll and two wins over Syracuse and USC from reaching the playoff. UCF is No. 11 and light-years from making it.
No matter what the game film shows.
John Raoux/Associated Press
“Notre Dame scored late to beat Pitt, and you hear the committee talk about how great it was for them to pull it out,” Milton continued during an interview with Bleacher Report earlier this week. “Then what we did to Pitt is ignored.”
Milton pauses for a moment, forces a crooked smile and sums up UCF’s uphill climb with a Hawaiian dialect as sweet as plumeria in full bloom.
“Thirteen dudes in a room,” he says, “hold our fate.”
If those dudes (actually, 12 men and one woman) were to take a deep dive on UCF, its magical quarterback and a roster full of players the Big Three in Florida (Miami, FSU and Florida) didn’t want, then maybe, just maybe, the eye test wouldn’t stop at the Power Five conferences.
They’d see a program that twice in the last five years was allowed inside the inner sanctum of the postseason and twice beat the tar out of the team on the other side of the ball, taking down Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl and Auburn in the Peach Bowl in January 2018.
They’d see a program that was winless just three years ago but has won five conference championships in the last 11 years. More importantly, they’d see an offense that will score points in bunches on any defense in college football.
How do we know this? None other than Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, who built his reputation as a defensive guru and is one of the game’s most respected defensive coaches, said so after UCF hung 45 on the Panthers. Milton accounted for six touchdowns that afternoon, and UCF was up 45-7 in the fourth quarter before the Knights shut it down.
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
“The quarterback is an amazing football player,” Narduzzi says. “He’s got my vote for the Heisman.”
Get this: Unless something unexpected happens, Milton won’t be in New York City to take part in that momentous occasion, either. He doesn’t play for Alabama or Oklahoma or Notre Dame.
He said he had offers from only Hawaii and Navy coming out of high school and was a 3-star recruit whom then-Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost tried to convince Ducks coach Mark Helfrich to sign. Helfrich passed. Frost later left Oregon to take the UCF job, and his first call was to Milton to fly nearly halfway across the world to visit Orlando and the Central Florida campus.
“Loved it from the first day I got here,” Milton says. “Green everywhere. Reminded me of home without the mountains.”
His first thought: This team didn’t win a game last year. His second thought (after taking his own deep dive on the program): They’ve won big before. Why not do it again, only bigger?
“We had a great program with guys buying in and doing everything it took to change the culture and make a difference,” Frost says. “And we had [Milton]. It all came together because of him.”
That’s why it was so hard for Milton to watch Frost leave for his dream job at Nebraska, and why he almost followed Frost to Lincoln.
“Part of me thought about it,” Milton says. “But in the end, these guys here, my teammates, I couldn’t leave them.”
Instead, they grew tighter. Not only did this collection of recruiting castoffs-turned-elite players want to show their home-state schools what they were missing—”[Florida, FSU and Miami] would be a lot better if they had these guys now, right?” Milton says—but they also wanted to show what UCF could be.
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press
When Josh Heupel arrived at Central Florida to replace Frost, the first thing he did was sit Milton down in his office and explain his improbable college story.
Heupel began his career at then-Division I-AA (see: FCS) Weber State and then transferred to Snow College, a junior college in Utah. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Mike Leach found Heupel, and in the first two years of Bob Stoops‘ tenure in Norman, the Sooners won 20 games. Heupel accounted for 62 touchdowns and led his team to the 2000 national title.
“I wanted [Milton] to know you didn’t have to be a big recruit to do big things,” Heupel says.
For 10 months now, the UCF administration and its vociferous fans have done everything possible to raise the football program’s profile. They’ve called the Knights national champions and called out Alabama. They’ve trolled college football personalities (and CFP voters) on social media and pushed for their moment of recognition.
ESPN finally relented last week when it announced its popular Saturday morning College GameDay show would be live from Orlando this week to showcase a critical American Athletic Conference game against Cincinnati.
Another eye-test moment has arrived for UCF, and why would this one be any different? With wins over Cincinnati and South Florida to end the regular season, followed by a victory in the AAC Championship Game, the win streak would grow to 25.
Then what? More “metrics” and “entry points” to wash away the only thing that matters.
“Watch us play,” Milton says. “Then make your decision.”
Then maybe you’ll see the difference, too.