Why UCF is the college football program with potential to experience Gonzaga-like success

On Tuesday night, I watched Gonzaga lose to Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference Tournament final. It was a shocking result, and not just because Gonzaga was a 14.5-point favorite. It was shocking because Gonzaga just doesn't lose the West Coast Conference Tournament. Seriously, in the 20 years Mark Few has been at Gonzaga, the Zags have won the tournament 14 times. This year was the first time they lost the tournament since 2012.

Still, despite the loss and despite the fact Gonzaga plays in a conference that doesn't receive many at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs are still projected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Which got me to thinking if we'd ever see a similar scenario in college football. No, we'll never have a 64-team tournament (at least I hope we won't), but could we one day see a scenario where a "mid-major" powerhouse does so well over a prolonged period of time that we accept it as a power?

Would it be possible for a Group of Five team to be considered an annual playoff contender in the current era of the four-team College Football Playoff? The prevailing theory is that the only way a G5 squad could reach the CFP is if it expands to eight teams and features an automatic berth for the highest-ranked G5 conference champion, much like it currently does with a New Year's Six berth. It's a theory I tend to agree with, as I'm not sure why an entity like the CFP -- created and run by the Power Five conferences -- would suddenly start sharing the money pie if it doesn't have to. But could a school eventually force its hand as Gonzaga has done in college basketball?

After all, it was 1999 when Gonzaga reached the West Regional Final as the No. 10 seed, losing to No. 1 UConn 67-62. It was a Cinderella run, but it was supposed to be a one-time thing. When coach Dan Monson capitalized on the run by leaving to take a job at Minnesota, you couldn't help but think it'd be the last we'd see of Gonzaga, at least in the Elite Eight. But then Mark Few took over and went to the Sweet 16 as a No. 10 seed in 2000 and again as a No. 12 seed in 2001. The Bulldogs would then bow out of the tournament on the first weekend for the next four years, but they were doing so as a program that suddenly found itself routinely ranked in the top half of the AP Poll. Then, in 2006, it returned to the Sweet 16 as a No. 3 seed. It'd return in 2009 as a No. 4 seed but would miss out on the second weekend again each season, until 2015 when it again reached the Elite Eight as a No. 2 seed. It's gone as far as the Sweet 16 each of the last four years, reaching the championship game as a No. 1 seed in 2017 (it lost to North Carolina).

That's a hell of a journey for a tiny private Catholic school in Spokane, Washington, over two decades.

Now, granted, while it's not easy for anybody to do it, it's easier in college basketball where there's more access to the postseason than there is in college football. Still, we've come closer to it happening than maybe we've even realized. Boise State shocked Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2006 season, which began an impressive run for the Broncos that saw them win 84 games and two BCS bowls from 2006 to 2012. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Chris Petersen, the man who oversaw Boise's rise to prominence, left following the 2013 season for Washington.

The school Boise State beat in its second Fiesta Bowl appearance was TCU. A TCU team that made an impressive run of its own. The Horned Frogs joined the Mountain West in 2005 and proceeded to win 77 games during their first seven seasons in the conference. Along with the Fiesta Bowl appearance, the Frogs beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl following the 2010 season. The problem is that TCU's first seven seasons in the MWC were its only seven seasons in the MWC. It would join the Big 12 in 2012 as the conference looked to replace the schools it had lost to the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12.

What if conference realignment hadn't thrown everything out of whack, though? What if Boise State continued to dominate the WAC under Chris Petersen and Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs were still crushing the Mountain West? Might we be at a place with those two programs where they'd "earned" the benefit of the doubt from the committee and eventually forced its hand when it came to playoff access?

All of which brings me to UCF. The Knights have played 25 games the last two seasons, and their only loss in that span was a 40-32 loss in the Fiesta Bowl earlier this year. This a year after beating Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl. While Scott Frost, the man who engineered an amazing turnaround, has left, that doesn't necessarily mean UCF is going to fade from the spotlight. There are still plenty of things working in its favor.

First of all, while the last two years have been extraordinary, it wasn't that long ago the Knights went 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl in 2013. They've now won at least 12 games in three different seasons since joining the American Athletic Conference in 2013, and each one has come under a different coach (Frost, Josh Heupel and George O'Leary).

UCF has some advantages that Boise State and TCU didn't as well. Boise State's a school with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 16,000 that plays in Idaho; not exactly a state ripe with high school football talent. TCU is located in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country but does so as a private school with an enrollment of under 9,000. UCF is a giant public school in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country, with school having an undergraduate enrollment of nearly 59,000 students. That's more than any other school in the country. If you look at the top 10 schools based on undergrad enrollment, UCF and FIU are the only non-Power Five schools present. It's also a school that seems interested in developing strong athletic programs and putting money into them, and it does so in a conference that may be a Group of Five member, but it's the one that garners the most respect from polls and the selection committee to this point.

It's enough to make you wonder if UCF can be college football's Gonzaga if it keeps moving at the pace it's currently on. 

Submit your questions to be answered in this space on Twitter (@TomFornelli) or via email (tom.fornelli@cbsinteractive.com)

Which CFB coach would be the best at each NFL Combine event? -- @unORRiginAL

This isn't the easiest question to answer because it's hard to know how agile most coaches are, so when it comes to things like the 40-yard dash and cone drills, we don't have a whole lot to go on based on what we see. I mean, Minnesota's P.J. Fleck does that thing where he sprints to the other end of the field at the end of quarters, but without other coaches doing it, we've nothing to compare it to. That said, I'd love to see LSU's Ed Orgeron and North Texas' Seth Littrell go at it on the bench press.

Who wins a conference championship first (or at all), The Mad Hatter at Kansas or Scott Frost at Nebraska? -- Henry Erzinger

The answer is Frost if we're going off probability. Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since 1999, but it plays in the Big Ten West. That's a division that isn't easy and is only getting tougher, but there isn't a dominant power within it. That means if things go in its favor, Nebraska could find itself winning a division title and reaching the Big Ten Championship, something the Huskers have already done once in 2012. The problem is that once it gets there, it's likely facing Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State. So winning the Big Ten isn't easy.

Kansas, meanwhile, hasn't won a conference since 1968, though it did win the Big 12 North in 2007. The Big 12 no longer has divisions, though, and it also has a round-robin schedule. So while Nebraska will avoid some of the Big Ten superpowers during the regular season, Kansas isn't able to dodge anybody. It's got to play Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State, TCU, etc. That will make it a lot more challenging to reach the Big 12 Championship, even with Miles's history at LSU. After all, there's a pretty big difference between LSU and Kansas.

Urban Meyer will be working with Fox this fall. Fox studios are in Los Angeles. USC is in Los Angeles. We all see what's happening here, right? -- Eric S.

Eric, are you trying to tell me that Meyer would retire from coaching and then spend only a year working on television before returning to the sidelines at a traditional power? What in the world has ever happened to make you think that's possible? OK, seriously, I'm not sure what Urban's future plans are, but given recent news, it seems to me that if he does want the USC job, he doesn't need to spend a year in a TV studio first. He just needs "Full House's" Aunt Becky to buy the job for him.

What chance would you say there is that Florida wins the SEC East? -- @EScrimshaw

I don't think it's all that unrealistic, honestly. Georgia is very good, we all know that. It's going to be the favorite for a reason. But I don't think the gap between Georgia and Florida is so wide that it's outside the realm of possibility that the Gators could win the division as early as 2019. A lot of Florida's key contributors from 2018 will return in 2019, while Georgia's had a few key defections both to the NFL and to transfers that could affect its depth, and in a league as deep as the SEC, depth is always necessary.

Plus, Georgia's conference schedule isn't a cakewalk. It'll play Florida in Jacksonville per usual, but it has road games against Auburn and Tennessee that could prove challenging. It also gets a Texas A&M team that should be tough in Jimbo Fisher's second season. That's not to say Florida's 2019 SEC schedule is easy, but aside from the trip to Baton Rouge, its road schedule is manageable. I still think Georgia's winning the East between 65 and 70 percent of the time, but I'd say Florida can win it 25 percent of the time. 

Is the Alabama dynasty over, Tom? -- @Blazefire84

I bet this column would get a lot more attention if I proclaimed that it was, but no, I don't believe so. I won't lie and say there isn't a part of me that wonders how much longer it can go. Nick Saban will celebrate his 68th birthday next season, and we don't know how much longer he'll want to stick around. Once he does retire, it'll be interesting to see who Alabama replaces him with, and whether it can maintain what he built. It won't be easy.

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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