For the third year in a row, it’s the elephant in the room.

UCF’s Playoff outlook isn’t just some media-contrived narrative. It’s a real, legitimate discussion that has a major impact on how we view college football at large, and whether or not the Group of 5 is really in the same league as the Power 5 as it relates to competing for championships.

So while you might be sick of it, there’s purpose with discussing this matter logically, and not as someone either saying “UCF is trash” or “UCF is a national champ.”

When UCF blasted Stanford on Saturday, it was done with the intent of sending a message — we can run it up on anybody. Of course, hanging 45 on Stanford doesn’t look quite as impressive when the Cardinal allowed USC to do the exact same thing a week earlier.

Still, though. It wasn’t even as close as the 3-score margin of victory indicated. UCF poured it on early and often … again. It was a drubbing.

Since the start of 2017, UCF is 4-1 against Power 5 opponents with the lone loss coming obviously against LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. In that stretch, UCF beat teams from the ACC (Pitt), Big Ten (Maryland), Pac-12 (Stanford) and SEC (Auburn). In those wins, UCF had an average margin of victory of 21 points.

Why does that matter? Isn’t this only based on the 2019 résumé? Yes. And no.

With Power 5 teams, it’s only based on the 2019 résumé. After 5 years of Group of 5-less Playoffs with 3 unbeaten Group of 5 teams missing the field — don’t forget about Western Michigan in 2016 — we can safely say that there’s a different set of rules there.

And look, that’s not to say that a Group of 5 team can’t make it there. I argued that Tom Herman’s 2016 Houston team, which was fresh off a New Year’s 6 Bowl win and beat Oklahoma at a neutral site to kick off the year, had a clear path to the Playoff.

With UCF, though, it’s complicated. Stanford isn’t 2016 Oklahoma, which was ranked No. 3 at the time of the season opener. Stanford isn’t even usual Stanford, which is always good for at least 9 wins under David Shaw. That was supposed to be the thing this year for UCF.

It was different than the last couple years when the likes of Maryland, UNC and Pitt were on the regular season schedule. Stanford had been to 3 Rose Bowls in the last 7 years and was considered a borderline top-25 team to start the year.

In a weird way, Saturday was a reminder that UCF has been somewhat unlucky with racking up quality wins in the regular season (I realize not taking a 2-for-1 against Florida or other powers is UCF’s own choice). All signs point to Stanford being mediocre at best while Pitt and Maryland won 7 and 4 games, respectively, in the years they played UCF. And it’s not just bad luck in the Power 5 teams.

When UCF burst onto the scene in 2017, the AAC was actually pretty good. It had 3 teams finish in the AP Top 25 (it’s easy to forget that the Knights finished the season with 3 wins against ranked teams). But in 2018, when everyone was well aware of UCF — obviously its own marketing efforts played a part in that — the AAC’s other ranked team was Cincinnati, and the Knights beat an 8-win Group of 5 team in the conference title game (Memphis).

It’s too early to know how that’s going to play out this year, but it’s worth noting that 3 non-UCF AAC teams already have Power 5 wins (Cincinnati beat UCLA, Temple beat Maryland and Memphis beat Ole Miss). The AAC having 3 teams in the AP Top 25, in my opinion, is a minimum of what UCF needs throughout 2019.

Last year, it was too easy for the selection committee to point at the strength of the AAC (or lack thereof) and say that UCF didn’t deserve to even sniff a Playoff spot. If Memphis could make it to the AAC unbeaten, that’d be huge.

You know what else would be huge? Beating the tar out of Pitt. Yes, the Panthers are coming off a loss, but it was a 7-point loss on the road to a Penn State team that’s ranked in the top 15. If UCF dropped the hammer up at Heinz Field and clobbered a second straight Power 5 opponent, that would be significant. The Knights have yet to beat more than 1 Power 5 opponent during the regular season since this run started. Hurricanes were to blame for that.

Here’s the good news for UCF — no Power 5 games will be canceled because of hurricanes this year.

Here’s the other good news for UCF — 42 of 62 AP Top 25 voters have the Knights as a top 15 team after just 3 games. A convincing win at Pitt next week would, in all likelihood, put that number over 50 voters with UCF as a top 15 team. I’d bet close to half would have UCF as a top 12 team. It’s different than the Playoff selection committee, but it still represents a sentiment in college football at large.

Last year, I thought it was a death sentence when UCF was sitting at No. 12 in the first Playoff poll. The odds that a Group of 5 team in a down conference would be able to jump that many Power 5 teams seemed extremely unlikely to me, barring completely and total chaos. I’d argue UCF is in need of at least starting at No. 9 when that first Playoff poll comes out in a month and a half.

The following things would also bode well for that happening in the first Playoff poll:

  • Pitt, Stanford actually put together solid seasons
  • The Pac-12 and non-Clemson ACC is already out of Playoff consideration
  • The non-Alabama SEC beats up on each other
  • No. Close. Wins.

And oh, winning 36 non-bowl games in a row would probably help a bit, too. That’s what it would take for UCF just have an outside shot once and for all.

Simple enough, right?