Florida, UCF both right on own terms in two-for-one spat

In comments on Friday, Dan Mullen expressed support for doing a two-for-one series with UCF. He seemingly broke news too in saying that Scott Stricklin had “brought it up” as a possibility, something that’s more formal than a coach just talking at a presser.

Mullen, never one to be all that diplomatic, was a little condescending in his support of the idea. He compared it to Mississippi State doing two-for-ones with “schools from smaller conferences” and spoke of it being “a great opportunity for them” to have an SEC team play at their place. I don’t think he was trying to be mean, but it did emphasize the difference in status between the two programs in a way that bothered UCF partisans.

Stricklin, for his part, said he hasn’t talked with UCF AD Danny White about scheduling a matchup. White has also said he wants to do home-and-homes with Power 5 teams, not two-for-ones.

The schools’ stances are entirely understandable given the two things that make the college football work go round: a little bit of pride and a whole lot of money.

Stricklin said that UF as a program doesn’t do one-for-ones with Group of Five programs: “We do home-and-homes with like FSUs and Power 5 leagues. We haven’t done any home-and-homes with non-Power 5 teams. I don’t think we would start that.” Florida, of course, hasn’t done a home-and-home with anyone but FSU or Miami since before the SEC expanded to 12 teams, though the point about program stature stands.

But remember, this is mostly about money. You won’t see Florida doing a home-and-home with a P5 program like Duke, Wake Forest, Kansas, or Washington State either.

Florida’s nonconference slate besides FSU is all about fundraising. Football generates the money that pays for most of the rest of the sports the school sponsors. Those three games every year are about return on investment.

The Gators are not going to do a home-and-home with a program that has a small stadium of its own and that won’t send many fans to the Swamp. They can get a better profit by just scheduling Sun Belt and CUSA teams at home. It’s not for nothing that the only two home games UF has given up recently (Michigan 2017, Miami 2019) are for neutral site games with guaranteed upfront payouts.

Even if Florida was in the business of doing home-and-homes with G5 teams, and it’s clearly not, UCF’s stadium capacity is only a little above 45,000. The cut that UF would get from that game just does not make it worth it if it isn’t getting two home games out of the deal. Two-for-ones exist, after all, because they’re cheaper than buying three one-off guarantee games in the same schedule slots and more lucrative than a home-and-home with a G5 team.

At the same time, I understand UCF’s deal with pride here. They claimed a national championship for last year, and in any event, this is two years in a row they’ve gone undefeated. They also won a BCS bowl in 2013.

At a certain point, a G5 team gets to a level where it believes itself to be at P5 quality, even if it isn’t in the P5 league. In those few cases, taking a two-for-one is below their station. As Mullen so indelicately pointed out, the asymmetry of the two-for-one is a clear indicator of an imbalance in status. UCF isn’t alone here either. Boise State resisted two-for-ones until giving in and doing one with Oregon this year, and it certainly wouldn’t have done one in its 2009-10 heyday.

Money issues also make it so that UCF should probably not do two-for-ones. They have gotten to a point where they too can profit from bringing a Sun Belt team to the home stadium and beating them. They can afford to make decisions based on pride because they can fund their program adequately without compromise.

The Knights get a nice chunk of change every time they go to a New Year’s Six bowl as well. It is easier to get to one of those bowls without a major P5 team on the schedule. I know they would prefer to play major P5 teams, but holding out for home-and-homes that largely will not come makes it easier for them to get to a big-money bowl game. It’s not a bad consolation prize for not compromising on the message they’re pushing about their status.

Beyond that, UCF has reason to play a long game that would result in a bigger payday than any home-and-home could ever be: eventual admittance in the Big 12.

The Big 12 is the odd P5 conference out with only 10 teams. When its current contracts expire next decade, it may decide to expand. From a recruiting standpoint, it would make a lot of sense for the league to get a team from Florida.

When the last round of realignment happened, the only programs to go from non-power to power conferences were Utah and TCU. Both had ascended to de facto P5-in-a-G5 status, to use today’s terminology. Pac-12 and Big 12 fans didn’t revolt over those additions because of their high perceived quality.

Go back to Boise State. It’ll never be a real P5 candidate because it has a small stadium and fan base and is in a recruiting desert. Yet, you can find people suggesting them for the Big 12 or Pac-12 every time expansion comes up. They’re seen as having a P5-quality football team even if the athletics program as a whole isn’t up to that level. That image matters to schools that want to make The Leap.

It especially matters to UCF because it has a competitor for that hypothetical Big 12 spot, one that it has lost out to before: USF.

Back when the old Big East — the weakest power conference, but a true power conference nonetheless — lost Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College to the ACC, it picked the Bulls as their Florida-based replacement school. It happened despite the Knights having played football for quite a while before USF even had a program going. It’s a very sore point for UCF people, especially because USF big-timed the Knights and refused to play them regularly once they got into the Big East.

I don’t know whether it would matter at this point or not, but the fact remains that USF has spent time in a power conference and UCF has not. A power conference has looked at those two schools and chosen the one from Tampa over the one from Orlando. The stakes of the competition between the two are not theoretical. It’s happened before, and UCF lost out. And it is very much a competition; there’s no more reason for the Big 12 to take both UCF and USF than there is for the SEC or ACC to add any additional teams from Florida.

UCF knows how quickly things can change in college football. They went 0-12 in 2015 and 13-0 in 2017. They also know how important timing is.

Utah went undefeated in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009 before the Pac-10 needed to find an expansion buddy for Colorado in the summer of 2010. TCU went 12-1 in 2009, 13-0 in 2010, and was on its way to 11-2 when the Big 12 extended an invite in October 2011.

The Big East invited USF in May of 2005. UCF had just gone 3-9 in 2003 and 0-11 in 2004. USF went 7-4 and 4-7 in those same years; that’s not stellar, but it’s a lot better. There was more to it than just the football records at the time, but those records certainly didn’t help the then-Golden Knights’ case.

The Big 12 contracts are years away from coming up. There’s no guarantee that the league will expand or even continue going and not break into pieces. But if it does hold together and look to add more teams, there likewise is no guarantee that UCF will still be what it is today at that time. The Knights need to boost their popular perception as much as possible now as a hedge against history repeating and USF having a better recent track record when the power conference comes calling.

I don’t know if UCF’s power brokers are thinking in terms of trying to impress the Big 12, but if they were, I don’t know what they’d do differently. Claiming a national title, even one that others roll their eyes at, is a claim to being on a P5 level. USF just tacitly accepted their being sub-P5 in status by setting up a two-for-one deal with Florida. UCF, for now, will not.

Florida and UCF have their positions stakes out on the two-for-one issue. Each has it exactly right as far as I can tell. That won’t turn down the heat on the shouting matches between fans of the schools, but no one is being irrational here.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2