College football’s defending national champions are coming to Orlando, home of college football’s other defending national champs.

That’s right: The Alabama Crimson Tide, winner of last season’s College Football Playoff, will open its 2018 campaign at Camping World Stadium. Just 17.7 miles across town, on the edge of Central Florida’s campus, sits Spectrum Stadium, which is proudly emblazoned with “2017 National Champions” in honor of last year’s undefeated team.

This won’t be a colossal collision of championship programs fighting it out to decide once and for all which can really claim last season’s title crown: Alabama will be playing Louisville in a neutral-site game. UCF will have returned from its Thursday-night season opener at UConn. Presumably, the Knights and Crimson Tide will not cross paths in any way.

The Orlando school’s national title claim got a boost recently when the 2018 NCAA record book was released. It says Alabama was last season’s champion, but also recognizes UCF’s claim. So exactly how real is Central Florida’s claim, and which team is the real national titleholder – the team playing in Orlando on Saturday, or the one that calls the city home?

The Matrix

UCF’s reasoning begins with the mathematical principle known as the transitive property of equality. In short, the Knights defeated Auburn in the Peach Bowl, Auburn had defeated College Football Playoff finalists Alabama and Georgia, so the conclusion is UCF tops Alabama.

Of course, that overlooks the fact Georgia avenged its regular-season defeat to Auburn in a rematch called the SEC Championship Game, and it also ignores the way that mathematical principle really works.

To quote the website mathwords.com, “Here is an example of an unsound application of the transitive property: ‘Team A defeated team B, and team B defeated Team C. Therefore team A will defeat Team C.’”

That brings us to a computer ranking known as the Colley Matrix, which was once part of the Bowl Championship Series formula that chose the national championship game participants before the College Football Playoff was introduced in 2014. The Colley Matrix final rankings for last season, taking all results into account, came out with UCF at No. 1. It is on that basis the NCAA record book recognizes Central Florida’s claim.

But there is a flaw in that reasoning: By the same records, Alabama is credited with 21 national championships, four more than the school actually claims. And while many might take issue with the Crimson Tide’s claimed 1941 title – UA finished 9-2 and was recognized by The Football Thesaurus’ Houlgate Poll – Alabama isn’t bold enough to lay claim to the 2016 championship after losing to Clemson in the playoff final.

One ranking did have Alabama No. 1 after that game was played, however: the Colley Matrix.

The playoff champ

Alabama, of course, defeated Clemson in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal and topped Georgia in overtime to win the championship game. Every major organization that hands out a trophy gave it to Alabama.

That’s good enough for the Crimson Tide.

“Look, I have a tremendous amount of compassion for UCF and what they accomplished … going undefeated,” UA coach Nick Saban said this summer at SEC Media Days. “We’ve only had one team that’s gone undefeated and won the national championship, and that was in 2009, and that is very, very, very difficult to do, for anyone. …

“I’m not responsible for the system that determines who gets in the playoffs, but I think they did a good job of determining who got in the playoffs, and we can have another discussion about the future of the playoffs and how many teams should get in the playoffs.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban hoists the National Championship trophy up as the Tide celebrates their victory over Georgia in overtime of the College Football Playoff National Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. [Staff Photo/Erin Nelson]
Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, naturally defends Alabama’s title.

“The committee got it right,” he said. “You can’t select teams without considering strength of schedule. Strength of schedule has to be a component.”

Remember Alabama navigated its SEC schedule with a lone defeat and then won two playoff games against highly-rated teams. UCF’s biggest wins were over American Athletic Conference foe Memphis – in the regular season and again in the league title game – and South Florida.

The S&P+ analytics used by SBNation.com, for instance, had Alabama’s strength of schedule as 34th-toughest in the nation going into last year’s playoff selection, while Central Florida’s ranked 103rd. A survey of a number of computerized strength-of-schedule rankings all had the Crimson Tide’s path as significantly tougher than UCF’s.

The hype

Central Florida made the most of its title claim. The school paid national championship bonuses to its coaching staff. Players, staff and even Orlando’s mayor got national title rings. There was a Disney parade. A banner proclaiming the feat was unveiled at the football practice facility, and the stadium embossing ceremony took place at the spring game. UCF even christened a campus police cruiser with a national title paint job.

That says nothing of the T-shirts and other memorabilia the school licensed.

A study commissioned by the school released in March estimated the publicity from the school’s unbeaten season and national title claim was worth $200 million.

“I get it from the standpoint of they’re trying to create buzz around their program and hype, that makes sense to me why they wanted to do that,” said Barrett Jones, who played on Alabama’s 2009, ‘11 and ‘12 national championship teams. “But I think they’ve taken it a little too far.”

Luke Porter and Josh Snead guard a University of Central Florida National Championship Trophy made out of Cardboard and Duct Tape at Gallettes on the Strip near the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. The University of Central Florida claimed the National Championship Title after finishing the season undefeated after beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl. The University of Alabama (12-1) beat Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship becoming the official National Champions. [Photo/Jake Arthur]

The plane

If Alabama fans in town for the Louisville game want to be sheltered from Central Florida’s claim, don’t look up.

The irony of Alabama invading UCF territory some eight months after the Knights first proclaimed themselves as champs won’t be lost. Chad A. Barr, a Central Florida graduate who is an Orlando-area attorney, has seen to that. He has chartered a plane to circle Camping World Stadium for three hours before kickoff with a trailing banner reminding all of UCF’s title declaration.

“It’s just a fun little college football jab,” Barr said. “We’re just trying to continue with the attention that our program’s been getting over the past couple of seasons and hoping that continues and leads to bigger and better things.”

Barr said he and some fellow UCF supporters finally settled upon a banner that calls the Knights co-champions rather than outright champions.

“That was a battle that we had – not really a battle, but that was frankly a discussion – and my first inkling was to just put ‘National Champions’ on the banner,” he said. “But we sat down and thought about it and we certainly don’t want to take anything away from Alabama, but we feel like there’s some legitimacy to our claim.”

Barr admits he’s a biased UCF fan, but he could argue the Knights’ case in court.

“I’m not a sports writer,” he said, “I’m not a talking head, but from a fan-base perspective we believe that in going undefeated that we were sorely disrespected in the polls at the end, very clear that they didn’t want to put someone outside the Power 5 (conferences) in the championship playoffs, so we got some traction with some polling, and obviously with the NCAA listing us as co-champions.

“To go undefeated and accompanying (that with) beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl, those things all lead us to believe we’re national champions. If anything, our hope is to get the playoff committee to expand the playoff and give more opportunities for schools like us to play in the playoffs.”

The other side

While Saban offered sympathy when asked about UCF’s claim, others weren’t so magnanimous.

“I felt disrespected at first,” UA running back Damien Harris said. “Them self-proclaiming their national championship, I thought it was disrespectful because it takes away form what we did and what we accomplished.

“But I got over that quick. It was a knee-jerk reaction, and … at the end of the day, they had a great season and did what they set out to do. We had a great season and did what we set out to do. So who cares at this point?”

Jones has been part of the Crimson Tide’s stamps in the record books and has three national championship rings to prove it. He says history will declare Alabama the true No. 1.

“I would encourage Alabama fans to not get worked up over,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. As time goes by, I can assure you that no one will really remember it. Those claims will be forgotten.”

Settle it?

Alabama and Central Florida aren’t scheduled to play football at any point in the future, although the Crimson Tide basketball team will visit the Knights in late November. So this won’t be settled on the field.

That leaves the question: Who was last season’s real national champ?

The Auburn Tigers played both teams, but don’t offer any answers.

“I really don’t have an opinion on that,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. “I don’t get into that debate as far as that goes.”

Neither does defensive lineman Dontavius Russell.

Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) gets past Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses to carry the ball in for a touchdown during the second half of the Iron Bowl in Auburn. The Tigers take on Georgia on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game in Georgia. [The Associated Press]
“The thing for me is when I was a little kid my dad always told me to take respect for the teams that beat you,” he said. “UCF beat us, so I respect them for that.

“It’s hard to really give an answer. You have to respect that Alabama won the playoff, but you also have to acknowledge the fact that UCF won all their games. It’s a sticky topic to get into.”

Not too sticky for Jones.

“I don’t think you’re going to find a whole lot of people who really, honestly think that Central Florida is going to play Alabama toe to toe,” he said. “I get the whole ‘Auburn beat Alabama and Central Florida beat Auburn,’ but that’s not, as we know, exactly how that works. I honestly don’t think it would be that close of a game.”

Hancock, the guy who runs the playoff, is firm in his belief.

“Alabama’s the national champion,” he said.

Even the loyalist who hired the plane to circle the stadium with a UCF banner isn’t saying his team would necessarily beat UA.

“I’d love to be there for it,” he said. “That’s what I say to that.

“To go around and say who would beat who, it’s a game of young men who are putting their physical talent on the line every single time for us fans to go and watch. For me to say UCF would win, I think I’d rather just say I’d like to be there to see it and to experience that.”

As for UCF’s claim?

“I call it joyful exuberance,” Hancock said. “I don’t quibble with their joyful exuberance.”

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.

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