The game that wasn’t: What if Tech and UCF had played?

Credit: Grant Halverson

Credit: Grant Halverson

Central Florida is one of the four remaining unbeatens among FBS teams. The others are Alabama, which is No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings; Miami, which is No. 3, and No. 5 Wisconsin. The 10-0 Knights are No. 15, which tells us what the selection committee thinks of their schedule as played.

Georgia Tech is 5-5 with one game remaining. The Yellow Jackets are 11-point home underdogs against Georgia. There’s a good chance they’ll finish their regular season 5-6, which wouldn’t meet the standard for bowl eligibility.

Tech was slated to face UCF in Orlando on Sept. 16. That game was canceled in the wake of Hurricane Irma. In the run-up to what appears a rather tepid Tech-Georgia convocation, this idle mind wonders: What if Tech-UCF had been played?

Irma arrived in the immediate wake of its brother Harvey. UCF’s inland campus became a staging area for relief efforts, Spectrum Stadium serving as a hub. Due to the storms, the Knights themselves had scattered. Their game against Memphis on Sept. 9 was postponed until Sept. 30, forcing cancellation of their scheduled game with Maine and Memphis’ date with Georgia State.

For the American Athletic Conference, the UCF-Memphis game has assumed massive importance. The Knights won 40-13. It’s the only loss for either team. (The Tigers are No. 21 in the CFP rankings.) Should UCF beat South Florida this Friday, the Knights will face Memphis again for the AAC title.

To date, this has been a golden season for the team once known as the Golden Knights. They didn’t start playing football until 1979. Georgia fans will recall UCF coming within an iffy offensive-interference call from victory in Sanford Stadium in 1998. Tech fans will note that George O’Leary, who’d beaten the Bulldogs three times when based at the Flats, again did the deed with the Knights in the 2010 Liberty Bowl. (Final score of that lollapalooza: UCF 10, UGA 6.) In 2013, O’Leary’s Knights went 12-1 and beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

UCF is in pole position for a New Year's Six bowl. Indeed, ESPN projects that the Knights will face Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year's Day. The Bulldogs, however, still have a path to the playoff. Due to its schedule, UCF has no such shot. But what, we ask again, if its schedule had included Georgia Tech?

We stipulate that a victory over Tech on Sept. 16 would have looked better then than now. The Jackets lost 42-41 to Tennessee on Labor Day in a game they’d dominated until they flopped. On Sept. 16, Tennessee was No. 23 in the Associated Press poll; it would lose that day at Florida and lose every SEC game thereafter. On Sept. 16, a one-point loss to the Volunteers didn’t seem one-tenth as awful as it does today.

Winning in Orlando would have lifted Tech to 2-1. Subsequent victories over North Carolina and Pittsburgh would surely have made the Jackets a Top 25 team when they ventured to Miami on Oct. 12. (They were 26th in that week’s AP poll.) The game against the Hurricanes was Tech’s first on an opponent’s field. Might they have fared better – they lost by one point on a field goal at 0:04 after a fourth-down conversion via a deflected pass – with another game’s worth of road-testing?

Had Tech played and won in Orlando, it would be bowl-eligible today. If Victory No. 6 isn’t forthcoming Saturday, the Jackets will need a waiver to grace a postseason game. As we speak, athletic director Todd Stansbury – once UCF’s AD; small world – is trying to rustle up a 12th regular-season game so his team can bank another victory. He has been trying for a while.

Say the Jackets had beaten UCF and hadn’t gotten unlucky at the end against Miami: They’d have been 5-1 at midseason and ranked No. 15, give or take, in the land. They’d have had a momentum that this season, due to those one-point losses, never assumed. Momentum can be a powerful thing.

And if Tech had lost to UCF? It would be 5-6 facing a probable 5-7, which wouldn’t have affected its waiver case. Such claims depend on availability -- if there are enough .500-or-better teams, the point is moot -- and academic ratings.

As for UCF: Beating Tech would have gotten the Knights into the AP Top 25 a bit sooner. As it was, they didn't crack those rankings until Oct. 1. If we go by ESPN's Football Power Index, a win over Tech would have been UCF's best victory. Per FPI, the Jackets are No. 27, which admittedly sounds high; Memphis is No. 33. The Knights' only victory over a Power 5 school came against Maryland, which is No. 74.

Would a victory over Tech have given UCF a playoff shout? ESPN’s Brad Edwards, the best in the business at this stuff, said no. “It really wouldn’t have changed much. Their non-conference schedule still wouldn’t have been good enough. Really, the best a Group of Five (the football equivalent of ‘mid-major’) team can hope for is a New Year’s Six game, and that’s where they are.”

With a game that never was, we can’t know what might have been. Maybe all that would have changed is one more win for a team that has 10 victories and one more loss for a five-L team. The belief here is that how Tech and UCF fared against each other would have supplied a significant marker for both. But, as the former Virginia Tech/Maryland/Kentucky coach Jerry Claiborne would say, “That’s that old ’iffin game.”