ORLANDO — The team capped an undefeated season with an exhilarating bowl victory on New Year's Day over a perennial college football power. The University of Central Florida's president and fans congratulated them on winning a national championship. The players will get national championship rings, and the coaches and staff got national championship bonuses. Students and alumni snapped up T-shirts in the campus bookstore commemorating the feat. UCF's upstart Knights were even toasted in a parade here Sunday afternoon at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
Trouble is, two other squads — each tagged with a regular-season loss to Auburn, the team UCF beat last week — will be playing Monday night in Atlanta for the actual national college football crown. Either the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Georgia Bulldogs will be declared the season's official champion.
UCF's gaudy 13-0 record and Peach Bowl victory have fans telling anyone who will listen that it was the nation's "only undefeated champion" in 2017. But the Knights will be forced to watch the NCAA title game on television along with the rest of the country. The team wasn't invited to the playoffs.
Few here seem bitter about these developments. To the contrary, the Knights and their partisans relish the "Who's the real champion?" debate. It plays directly into UCF's plan, casting a spotlight on a school founded in the 1960s that in recent years has boomed in size and influence but is still seeking the recognition the school believes it deserves.
"We're showing the nation," said Brad Kuehler, 20, a junior from south of Daytona Beach who is a leader in student government. "We've been doing some amazing things. We believe we're a great school, and we're here to stay."
With 66,000 students, double its total since the turn of the century, UCF is one of just a few public institutions that have become mega-universities in that time, along with Arizona State, Ohio State and Texas A&M, among others. In higher education it is known for innovative teaching that enables students to take classes face-to-face, online or in some combination of the two. It also enrolls huge numbers of first-generation students, community college transfers and others who have overcome hurdles on the way to a bachelor's degree.
Now, to those outside Florida who might just be learning what its initials stand for, UCF is known for having a football team that can compete at elite levels.
This year's Knights were led on defense by a zealous linebacker, Shaquem Griffin, who tackles with one hand because his left hand was amputated when he was 4. Quarterback McKenzie Milton threw for more than 4,000 yards for the season and was instrumental in the 34-27 victory over Auburn, completing two touchdown passes and rushing for a third.
It was their second New Year's bowl victory in four years. The Knights upset Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl in January 2014. While their fortunes sagged with a winless (0-12) campaign in 2015, by 2017 they again were tearing through the American Athletic Conference, beating Navy in Annapolis, Memphis twice and in-state rival South Florida in what's known here as the "War on I-4" — a nod to the interstate linking Orlando and Tampa.
But the AAC is not one of the venerable five "power" conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12 — that dominate attention in college football and snatch up invitations every year to the four-team playoffs. Head coach Scott Frost, who led UCF through the perfect season, has moved to coach his alma mater, Nebraska, in the Big Ten. Frost quarterbacked Nebraska to a shared national title with Michigan in 1997, the year before the Bowl Championship Series created a title game to crown a single champion.
Some here at UCF dismiss those conferences as "The Cartel"; no team from outside of it has made the playoff bracket since it debuted after the 2014 season (and no national champion in that time has finished undefeated).
With a schedule deemed softer than what others face, UCF finished 12th this season, well out of the playoff picture.
"UCF is an excellent team," Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, told ESPN last week, "but you still have to take into account who each team played and defeated during the regular season."
Danny White, UCF's athletic director, said in an interview on campus Sunday that he takes nothing away from Alabama and Georgia. He emphasized that he wouldn't claim a national title if there were other undefeated teams in the playoff — but there weren't. He said there have been dozens of shared football national titles in the past, and he considers this another one.
"We think teams like ours should have an opportunity to settle it on the field," White said. "We are claiming a national championship. We've been very clear about that."
And Orlando is celebrating that way, too.
After the Peach Bowl, university President John C. Hitt staked out his view on social media: "Our undefeated, national champion Knights are an inspiration. They battled adversity, lit up scoreboards and created a defining moment for UCF: perfection."
On Monday evening, two hours before the Alabama-Georgia kickoff, Orlando plans to hold what is billed as a "national championship block party." On Sunday afternoon, the Knights paraded in uniform with Mickey Mouse and company on Disney's Main Street USA.
"We literally did not lose to anyone," said Lindsay Berry, 27, a 2013 UCF graduate who attended the parade with her husband, both wearing "National Champions" shirts. "In most other sports that makes you the champion. The winner."
UCF officials hope all this attention will burnish the reputation of a school that opened in 1968 and launched its football program in 1979. (After that season, Alabama claimed the 11th of its 16 national titles. There are arguments over that total, too, but that's another story.)
For decades, UCF was a low-profile commuter school. No more. It now awards 15,000 degrees each year and is building a new teaching hospital and downtown satellite to go with a sprawling central campus dotted with palm trees and images of Pegasus, the Knights' winged steed. At the same time, the school aims to remain widely accessible, with in-state tuition and fees this year of $6,368. More than 20,000 of its undergraduates have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants, reflecting a major effort to promote social mobility.
National television coverage of the football team provides priceless marketing. That helps out-of-state recruiting and, no doubt, intensifies the competition with the University of Florida and Florida State for top home-state talent, academic and athletic. A. Dale Whittaker, UCF's provost, said the university is proud of the academic performance of its student-athletes: 92 percent of its football players graduate, a higher success rate than many schools with top-flight programs.
All weekend the campus was abuzz as students were arriving for the start of the spring semester. Many had swarmed Atlanta for the Peach Bowl, including Dallas Keeney, 22, a senior from New Oxford, Pa., who is majoring in marketing. Keeney is a member of UCF's cheerleading squad, a force at football games and other sporting events that is also nationally competitive in its own right. (Alabama and Kentucky are among its rivals.)
On Saturday, Keeney and others on the elite acrobatic unit practiced a 2½-minute routine at UCF's arena with an array of human pyramids, basket tosses, twirling bodies and stunning one-armed lifts. He said he came to UCF to compete in cheerleading. With its size, he said, the school "provided a million outlets so I could find what I wanted to do." Being at the football games this year, he said, he was struck by the passion of the team's followers at home and on the road.
"UCF travels well," he said. "For being such a young school, we don't have hundreds of years of fandom. But we have people everywhere."
Keeney said he "absolutely" considers the Knights national champs. "They're the only undefeated team in the country," he said. "We've taken down Auburn, who took down Georgia and Alabama. There's not much more you can say. We deserve the attention. We are on the map."
At the bookstore, employees were rushing to stock racks with celebratory T-shirts, black with white-and-gold lettering, for $27.98 each. Some declared UCF "National Champions." Others were more restrained, proclaiming "Perfection."
Maxwell Suarez, 18, a freshman from Coral Springs, Fla., took the safer route. "I technically don't think we're national champions," he said. "We should have been. But it's just how it is." Suarez said the fact that UCF beat Auburn — and that Auburn beat Georgia and Alabama — does not settle the matter. The transitive properties of mathematics, he said, do not apply to college football. But he said UCF should be proud anyway. "We did have a perfect season."