Talent vs. Team: UCF, the Group of 5, and Polls

After a week 1 blowout at UConn, UCF finds itself ranked 19th (AP) and 20th (Coaches). This along with the preseason ranking is the earliest the pollsters have ranked the Knights, ever. And yet, UCF twitter burns with anger at the low ranking. I don’t want to weigh in on whether they’re ranked too high or too low here (hint: they are ranked too low), but I want to explore why UCF might be viewed differently than other teams that are arbitrarily ranked ahead of them in 2018. So, here we go…

Talent vs. Team

I would suggest that the criteria used to rank preseason teams (and the first couple weeks) shifts along the way somewhere during the regular season. Talent is valued over “team” (team in this case meaning how well a team plays together). This is why a teams like Texas, FSU, Miami, etc. all get the benefit of the doubt. No doubt these teams are filled with talented players. But. Superior talent does not always equate to a superior team. Superior teams often beat teams with superior talent.
This early season talent over team criterion (whether subconscious to voters or not) explains why in week 3 of 2017 Tennessee at Florida was a top 25 matchup while both teams ended the year with a losing record and without their head coaches. At some point, though, it seems as though voters shift to value teams and talent. Of course, the pollsters have no choice. Once teams begin to play, proper evaluation can occur.

Group of 5 Disadvantage

The perceived lack of talent at a time when games have not been played explains why teams like Boise State, UCF, Fresno State, etc. will always be disadvantaged. Mississippi State and UCF shared a very similar off season. So, why was UCF ranked lower to start the season in both major polls? I argue that pollsters value talent over team when the teams haven’t played yet. Understandably, it’s difficult to evaluate how well a team will be before it plays. Shouldn’t voters, though, at least say “Hey, they finished as a top 10 team last year, and they return most of their depth chart, they should probably be a good team again this year”?

So What?!

In a perfect world, none of this should matter. The cream should rise to the top. But with such a narrow margin for making the CFP, G5 teams need all the help they can get. College football talk is memetic. Pretty soon, everyone starts to say the same thing, so perception turns into reality for folks. Then it’s week 10, UCF is 12th, and can never even get a sniff because “Boise is better” or “they ain’t played no one, Pawl.” So, the college football zeitgeist transforms teams like UCF and Boise State into Sisyphus, forever pushing that underrated boulder up the CFP hill never to reach the top.

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