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American dream: UCF, others eye unlikely, unprecedented BCS berth

If fortune continues to shine on George O'Leary's Knights, they could play for a more storied trophy in January.
If fortune continues to shine on UCF, George O'Leary could vie for a more storied trophy in January. (USATSI)

NEWPORT, R.I. -- Jordan Clark had a very good year. A year potentially worth $24 million.

You don't know Clark, a 41-year-old associate general counsel at Central Florida. How could you? Like thousands of other lawyers, he toils in anonymity protecting the interests of the university that pays him. It's also possible Clark doesn't know himself what kind of windfall year he has had for UCF.

It went almost unnoticed in April when the school won an appeal of an NCAA bowl ban resulting from one of the most heinous cases of cheating in recent history. That victory already might be the Knights' biggest of the season. What happened at UCF made the Ohio State and Southern California scandals look almost like touch football.

Central Florida's athletic director was involved with a convicted felon/street agent steering players -- football and basketball -- to UCF. Keith Tribble resigned, as he should have. The NCAA showed little pity, slamming the program with that bowl ban, lack of institutional control, scholarship cuts, vacated victories (in basketball) and five years' probation.

"Coach [Bill] O'Brien at Penn State, I blamed him," UCF coach George O'Leary said kiddingly on Tuesday at the American Athletic Conference media day, "because our case came up right after the Penn State case. I still think they had their guns blazing at that time, the NCAA."

The penalties were handed down a mere six months after UCF had last been on probation. That means, technically, the football program was eligible for the death penalty.

Oh, and did we mention that the school is appealing a multimillion-dollar verdict against it in the death of former player Ereck Plancher? At last count, the school was on the hook for an estimated $15 million.

Yes, UCF was very lucky to be eligible for not only a bowl in its first year in the AAC, but a BCS bowl. It is one of three conference teams that has never been to a major bowl, never mind one of the current BCS bowls (Fiesta, Orange, Rose, Sugar).

But look what just dropped from the sky -- a weird, twisted piece of realignment fallout. UCF -- along with American partners South Florida and Memphis -- has its best chance this season to go to a major bowl for the first time. Perhaps ever.

One of those three only have to be the best of 10 in the AAC to grab the conference's automatic BCS berth. Next year, they have to be the best of the entire non-BCS (55-plus schools) to grab the one berth available in the playoff era.

"I thought about that when I got the job," first-year South Florida coach Willie Taggart said.

No one is saying it's going to happen. South Florida and Memphis have never won an FBS conference title. UCF was picked fourth in the AAC's preseason media poll. But that's a combined 1,540 games and 145 years worth of football suddenly eligible for a lifetime achievement.

(In the AAC this season, Louisville, Connecticut and Cincinnati have played in BCS bowls. Rutgers has not but is headed to the Big Ten next season, where it will play for a playoff bowl each season. SMU [Cotton, 1982], Houston [Cotton, 1984] and Temple [Sugar, 1934] have all played in major bowls, but for each it has been a while.)

In this one magical year, those AAC schools have their best chance to get behind the velvet rope. Imagine Central Florida-Florida in the Sugar Bowl or SMU-Texas in the Fiesta Bowl. Sure, it's a long shot, but at least it's a shot -- similar to the one granted Boise State and TCU at one time.

"It's definitely on the mind of everybody that this is a BCS year, that we get an exemption in there," SMU coach June Jones said.

It goes like this: This is the last year of the BCS. That means one more year for those automatic BCS bowl berths for the six conference champions. The net share for getting in a BCS bowl this year is $24 million. Thanks to conference realignment, the American inherited the Big East's automatic berth for this year only.

Sure, the American is a bastardized version of the Big East -- and the Big East only had a guaranteed BCS berth in the first place because of a special waiver. But for those outside the BCS circus tent, you look for glimmers of light where you can find them.

Consider this potentially the best year of their lives for one of those schools. Four teams in the league (Temple, Rutgers, South Florida and Memphis) haven't won an outright FBS conference title. SMU's last outright title was 1982. For Houston, it has been since 1978.

Without that appeal, UCF would be looking at a bowl ban and postseason purgatory.

"To go through a season and have no reward for the success of the regular season, that's hard," Knights quarterback Blake Bortles said. "It's hard to be a motivated team when you can't play past 12 games. I can't imagine what that's like. I give Ohio State, especially, all the credit in the world for going 12-0 last year."

Bortles had a first-hand look. In the second week of the 2012 season, Central Florida provided a spirited challenge to those Buckeyes before losing 31-16.

All of this is moot if Louisville plays like the favorite it is. The Cardinals should start in the top 10 following last season's Sugar Bowl victory against Florida. The American is a one-year stopover for Louisville before it heads to the ACC. Its football carried it there -- two BCS bowls in the past seven years. Rutgers was thrown a surprising realignment life preserver by the Big Ten's Jim Delany.

Life goes on extraordinarily successfully for the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights.

Beginning in 2014, 12 lucrative playoff bowl spots will be available each year, the top four reserved for the playoff. Only one of those 12 spots will be guaranteed to the highest-ranked school among the American, MAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA and Mountain West. Do the math. Fewer than five of those schools will have played in a BCS bowl (since 1998) when those conferences are further realigned in 2014.

You can see why Jordan Clark should be the Knights' preseason MVP. They have a shot at that $24 million because of his -- with others' -- hard work on the NCAA case.

"We knew that the appeals standard is a very difficult hurdle," Clark said. "We did not think we had this earth-shattering successful case. We knew the standard would be high."

UCF also had Mike Glazier. It has been a good year for him, too. One of the most influential figures in college sports, Glazier is an attorney based in Overland Park, Kan., who troubleshoots NCAA cases for schools. It was Glazier -- nicknamed "The Cleaner" -- who got Oregon off without debilitating sanctions in the Will Lyles case. It was Glazier who has fought doggedly representing Miami in perhaps the most controversial case in NCAA history.

Miami's resolution is expected soon. An educated guess, but don't expect anything major beyond what the school has already self-imposed.

Back to UCF. Glazier proceeded with the appeal in October 2012. (He did not want to be quoted for this column.) UCF had to show the NCAA the penalties were "clearly excessive" or "abuse of discretion." Glazier crafted an appeal that cited similar cases. CBSSports.com obtained the documents used by UCF in the appeal.

To say the appeals standard was high is an understatement.

"We didn't think [UCF] had that much chance to win," one source close to the case said. "When they changed the standard on appeal for reversing -- changed it [to show] an abuse of discretion -- there's not much chance to win on appeal."

The school made a point that it had "complied and cooperated" with the NCAA, and was not given proper credit. The appeals committee agreed. In essence, UCF succeeded in showing the NCAA had piled on to one of the little guys.

Well, "little" if you consider UCF has the second-largest enrollment in the country.

In football, the Knights have only this season, perhaps, to prove they are big time.

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