Auburn was the hottest team in college football in November, but Monday provided a reminder that no team has been hotter throughout the entire season than UCF.
On the day of the College Football Playoff semifinals, Auburn, the team that beat two playoff teams, was outplayed by UCF, the undefeated but unwanted team that received no respect from the selection committee. The No. 12 Knights beat the No. 7 Tigers 34-27 behind an exceptional second half from quarterback McKenzie Milton and some big stops and big takeaways from the defense.
UCF's victory moved the Group of Five conferences to 3-1 in New Year's Six bowl games since the start of the playoff era in 2014. As the nation's only undefeated team at 13-0, this UCF squad is the biggest argument yet for creating a playoff system that would be more inclusive to the Group of Five. After what happened Monday, on top of the entire season, it's hard to argue against the belief that UCF deserved a chance to prove itself in a playoff rather than a Peach Bowl that served as a consolation prize of sorts.
There were no fluke qualities to what happened in Atlanta. UCF outplayed Auburn most of the game, clearly belonging on such a stage.
The Knights trailed 3-0 after the first quarter but vaulted to the lead in the second quarter with a field goal and a Milton touchdown run following an Auburn fumble.
The Tigers stepped on the gas early in the second half and appeared poised to take control of the game. Noah Igbinoghene returned the opening kick of the third quarter 72 yards to set up a Jarrett Stidham touchdown pass to Will Hastings, and Auburn followed that with an 82-yard drive capped by a Kerryon Johnson touchdown to take a 20-13 lead.
UCF fought back, though. Milton -- who finished with 242 passing yards and 116 rushing yards -- came to life as a passer, hitting Otis Anderson for a 12-yard touchdown to tie late in the third. After Auburn went three-and-out, Milton led another touchdown drive, this time connecting with Dredrick Snelson for an eight-yarder to go up 27-20.
The Knights missed two field goals in the fourth quarter, but a Chequan Burkett pick-six and an Antwan Collier interception in the end zone allowed UCF to hold off a comeback by the Tigers, who had cut the lead back to seven with 4:12 left but couldn't get any closer.
Perfect season ✅ pic.twitter.com/7L2SQCcXD4- ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 1, 2018
Auburn had two of the most impressive wins all season when it beat both Georgia and Alabama by double digits in November, before faltering with a loss to Georgia in the SEC title game. UCF could never garner respect for its resume, which included blowout wins over Maryland and Memphis in September and season-ending dramatic wins over South Florida and Memphis, again. There were holes in the Knights' resume, but they played at a high level all season, leading the nation in scoring and also often playing stellar defense behind standout linebacker Shaquem Griffin.
If there was any doubt that UCF was capable of competing with the nation's best, it was erased on Monday in the program's second major bowl win in five seasons. In 2012, the Knights beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, capping a 12-1 campaign. It was the start of a bizarre roller coaster in which they cratered to 0-12 in 2015, before rising back to prominence the past two seasons under coach Scott Frost, who coached his final game on Monday before returning to lead Nebraska, his alma mater.
There are thus many angles coming out of UCF's win: It will finish the season as the nation's only unbeaten team, and it did so just two years after going winless. The victory also creates even more excitement for the arrival of Frost at Nebraska, as it further highlights what a remarkable job he did to swiftly turn UCF football around
Most of all, the win creates further questions: The Peach Bowl is a nice reward and a high-profile game for a team like UCF, how could an undefeated team capable of playing like this never have a reasonable chance of even being in the playoff conversation?
After Monday, Auburn's surely wondering the same thing.