SMQ: When Cinderella dreams collapse on the gridiron

by Zach Bigalke

UCF watched dreams of a Cinderella bid into the College Football Playoff crumble at Pitt. How do pollsters react when a mid-major suffers its first loss?

After beating Stanford and moving up to No. 15 in the AP Top 25, UCF had high hopes of snatching a second Power Five statement win on the road against Pitt. The Knights were double-digit favorites on the road against the unranked Panthers, but they struggled early and gave up a last-minute touchdown as the ACC hosts prevailed 35-34. With the defeat, UCF’s streak of 27 straight regular-season victories came to an end. So did their Cinderella dream of pushing for a shot at the national title.

The late reversal killed any chance Josh Heupel’s team might have had of running the table in the regular season for a third straight year and finally forcing the College Football Playoff selection committee’s hand. Yet everything else is still on the table for UCF, as the Knights are still alive in the race for a third straight American Athletic Conference title and another New Year’s Six bid.

But they are likely to fall hard in the AP Top 25 this week after climbing high just a week earlier. The fall could span anywhere from an eight-spot drop down to No. 23 to the nuclear possibility of tumbling all the way out of the rankings and into the purgatory of others receiving votes.

How have pollsters reacted when a highly-ranked and undefeated mid-major suffered its first loss of the season? We have already seen it happen several times in the College Football Playoff era and on multiple other occasions when the BCS reigned supreme over the sport. Let’s look at how the polls reacted to some of those painful losses that killed Cinderella seasons over the past decade.

2016 Houston Cougars
No. 6 in Week 6 No. 13 after 46-40 loss at Navy

In 2016, Houston came into October absolutely on top of the world. After making a run to the New Year’s Six the previous year (more on that in a moment), the Cougars opened the season at No. 15 and promptly pushed up into a top-10 spot in the AP Top 25 after dominating then-No. 3 Oklahoma in a neutral-site season opener at NRG Stadium in Houston. Playing in their home city, the Cougars took down the eventual Big 12 champions in a 33-23 pasting that gave them a nine-spot boost in the poll.

The Cougars held on to the No. 6 position over the rest of September, heading into their bye week at the beginning of October with a 5-0 record and a real shot at becoming the first Group of Five team to play in the College Football Playoff proper if they could run the table and get a few lucky breaks along the way. They had built up real respect among the pollsters, and presumably the CFP selection committee would see an unbeaten Cougars team in a similar light.

But after taking a break, Houston got back on the field for a road showdown against Navy in Annapolis. Greg Ward Jr. put the Cougars on his shoulders, racking up 359 passing yards and 94 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. But Ward also coughed up a fumble and a pair of costly interceptions that the Midshipmen turned into 14 points. That was enough to flip the script, as Navy upset Houston 46-40.

The loss pushed Houston seven spots down the poll when the AP Top 25 came out the next day. Tom Herman’s squad rebounded with a 38-31 win against Tulsa the next weekend, but a fortnight after their first loss the Cougars suffered their second defeat in a 38-16 blowout by SMU. That pushed them out of the polls completely for much of the rest of the season.

Houston returned once again to the Top 25 at No. 18 after taking down eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamer Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals. But that goodwill was sacrificed immediately, when Houston followed up their second Power Five takedown with a 48-44 collapse at Memphis to close out the regular season. Even with a win over the Tigers, though, the Cougars would not have reached the American Athletic Conference championship game and would have been ineligible for a New Year’s Six berth.

2015 Houston Cougars
No. 13 in Week 12 No. 21 after 20-17 loss at UConn

The reason Houston was ranked so high to start the 2016 season was because of what the 2015 roster was able to accomplish. Tom Herman’s first Cougars team opened the year unranked, and finally entered the AP Top 25 in Week 7 at No. 24 after starting the year 5-0. That record included a Power Five win over Louisville and a pair of conference victories against Tulsa and SMU.

Houston kept winning, improving to 10-0 with another Power Five win over Vanderbilt and a Top 25 victory over divisional foe Memphis. Entering the penultimate showdown of the regular season against 5-5 UConn, Houston still needed to keep winning to ensure a spot in the AAC title game.

But the Cougars struggled to get their offense going on the road at Rentschler Field, as Greg Ward Jr. was sidelined and Kyle Postma took over under center. Postma threw for 190 yards and ran for 52 more, but he was eventually injured in the fourth quarter and Ward was forced to enter the game on his balky ankle. The resultant interception sealed a 20-17 victory for UConn that knocked the Cougars eight spots down the AP poll.

A week later, Houston took care of business against Navy to shore up their chance to face a top-20 Temple team in the AAC championship game. Ranked No. 17 entering the title bout, the Cougars took care of business in a 24-13 victory on their home field to become conference champs.

That sealed Houston’s spot in the Peach Bowl opposite Florida State, and the Cougars seized the opportunity with an emphatic 38-24 downing of the Seminoles in Atlanta. With the win, Houston finished the year 12-1 and ended at No. 8 in both the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll. By finishing so high in 2015, they were set up to make the push that ultimately fell short in 2016.

2013 Fresno State Bulldogs
No. 16 in Week 14 No. 24 after 62-52 loss at San Jose State

For a while in 2013, it looked like Fresno State might squeak into the top 12 of the BCS rankings and earn themselves a trip to a major bowl game in the final season of the series before the inauguration of the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs rose all the way to No. 16 in the AP Top 25 and the BCS standings heading into their final regular season game.

That showdown came against a 5-6 San Jose State team, and it appeared for all intents and purposes that Fresno State was a lock to head into the Mountain West championship game undefeated. But a wild shootout ensued, as David Fales and David Carr traded touchdowns. Fales finished with the slightly better statline, throwing for 547 yards and six touchdowns on 37-of-45 passing. Carr, by comparison, went 38-of-50 for 519 yards with six scores but also one interception.

Running 91 plays over the course of the game, San Jose State controlled the clock for just under 40 minutes. That allowed the Spartans to limit the possessions for a potent Bulldogs offense, and Fales came up huge as he outgunned Carr through the air. The Spartans pulled off the shocker 62-52, and Fresno State plummeted eight spots out of BCS contention.

Northern Illinois followed in Fresno State’s footsteps the following week. The Huskies climbed up into the No. 16 spot vacated by the Bulldogs as they headed into the MAC championship with an undefeated 12-0 record. But NIU was humbled at Ford Field by the Falcons in a 47-27 whitewash, as Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson completed 21 of his 27 passing attempts for 393 yards and five touchdowns and Travis Greene racked up 133 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

2011 Boise State Broncos
No. 5 in Week 11 No. 10 after 36-35 loss vs. TCU

Once non-AQ teams finally started getting a chance to crack into the BCS picture with Utah’s 2004 run under Urban Meyer, Boise State became the original Cinderella story with their 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma. They followed up that trip two years later with a Buster-vs.-Buster battle against Mountain West champion TCU.

Two years later, the Broncos and Horned Frogs found themselves together in the Mountain West after Boise State bolted the WAC ahead of the league’s collapse. Boise State was making a serious run at the Mountain West title in their first season in the league, opening the year with a two-touchdown win over Georgia and hovering between No. 4 and No. 5 in the polls from the start of the season.

As they entered their late-season showdown against a TCU team with its own intentions on the conference crown, the Broncos had the advantage of playing the contest at home. The Smurf Turf proved inadequate to tip the scales definitively in their favor, however, and the game turned into an instant classic.

Kellen Moore threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns, yet was outgunned by Casey Pachall’s 473 yards and five passing scores. D.J. Harper rushed for 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Broncos. But when TCU scored in the final minute to take a 36-35 lead on a two-point conversion, it put Boise State on high alert.

The Broncos moved downfield coolly, as Moore guided them into field-goal range. Lining up for a 39-yard field goal, Dan Goodale had the chance to be Boise State’s hero. Instead, the kicker pushed his attempt wide right on the final play of the game as the reigning Rose Bowl champions won the de facto MWC championship game by a single point.

Boise State dropped five spots to No. 10 in the AP Top 25, but they quickly climbed back up into single digits in the poll as they won out their last three regular-season games. Closing out the year with a 56-24 Las Vegas Bowl win over Arizona State, Boise State ended their 2011 campaign ranked No. 8 by the AP and No. 6 in the Coaches Poll.

2010 Boise State Broncos
No. 3 in Week 13 No. 9 after 34-31 OT loss vs. Nevada

Part of the reason why the 2011 loss to TCU on a missed field goal hurt so bad for Boise State fans was what transpired against another ranked conference opponent in the Broncos’ final WAC season. Chris Petersen’s team, a year removed from beating TCU in a Fiesta Bowl pitting the Mountain West champ against the WAC winner, was on track for another BCS berth.

Opening the year at No. 3 in the AP Top 25, the Broncos climbed as high as No. 2 for several weeks and had a legitimate chance of breaking into the BCS championship game. They already had wins over ranked power-conference opponents Virginia Tech and Oregon State, and the Broncos sat at No. 3 and 10-0 in the standings when they headed to Reno to face No. 19 Nevada.

Kellen Moore was stellar as usual, throwing for 348 yards and two touchdowns. Doug Martin rushed for a pair of scores and 152 yards on 24 carries. But Colin Kaepernick responded with 259 passing yards and 45 rushing yards with two total touchdowns out of the Pistol, and Vai Taua led the Wolf Pack with 131 rushing yards and a score.

Boise State had a chance to win in regulation, but senior kicker Kyle Brotzman missed his 26-yard attempt with two seconds left and the two teams went to overtime. After stalling on their overtime drive, the Broncos lined up to kick a 26-yard field goal. Again, Brotzman missed on his short attempt, leaving the door open for Nevada to pull off the upset in Reno.

Anthony Martinez struck true on his field goal attempt, and Boise State was once again out of BCS contention as they dropped six spots to No. 9 and TCU swooped in as the Mountain West champ to take the Rose Bowl bid. Boise State concluded their season with a 26-3 Las Vegas Bowl win over Utah that proved small consolation for what might have been.

What does this mean for the 2019 UCF Knights?

Unlike all of these other stories, the Knights did not lose their first game of the year in a conference showdown. In the College Football Playoff era, all a Group of Five team needs to do is win its league to have a shot at getting into a New Year’s Six bowl. UCF is still very much alive in the race for the American Athletic Conference, making it easier for them to get right back in the picture.

What these stories show is that a chance of redemption is much easier when the loss doesn’t come too late in the season. UCF will probably fall anywhere from six to nine spots in the polls this week after falling by a point at Pitt, but they are going to remain ranked and have every chance of climbing back up to the top of the Group of Five pecking order.

Next: Week 5 AP Top 25 projections

In the end, a single loss isn’t necessarily a death sentence — at least now that the College Football Playoff includes some automatic inclusionary provisions for Group of Five teams that did not exist for unfortunate teams like Boise State, Northern Illinois, and Fresno State.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.