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‘It’s a game-changer’: UCF’s Gus Malzahn encouraged by possible CFP expansion

A “re-energized” Gus Malzahn already felt like he was taking over UCF’s football program at the perfect time, and then the news dropped last week that the College Football Playoff was likely expanding from four to 12 teams.

“This expansion benefits us as much as anybody in college football,” Malzahn told ESPN. “It’s a game-changer, no doubt. Strategically, when I first got the job, it was, ‘How do we get into the playoff with just four teams?’ Well, we just felt like we had to schedule a top-10 team, which is hard for us, and then you’ve got to beat them and run the table in your conference.

“Realistically, how often is all of that going to line up? But now, with 12 teams, that all changes. We’ll have a real shot every year to get in.”

The new proposal calls for the playoff bracket to include the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the six highest-ranked other teams as determined by the CFP’s selection committee. Of note, there are no guarantees for particular conference champions, meaning at least one non-Power 5 team would make the playoff every year.

“Two out of the last four years, UCF would have been in the final 12 in this new format [2017 and 2018],” Malzahn said. “The way we’re going to recruit here, I really believe we’ll win a national championship in the near future. I believe everything is set up to do that. You can just kind of feel it, that we’re going to do something special here.”

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Kirk Herbstreit joins SportsCenter to discuss the College Football Playoff possibly expanding to 12 teams.

Malzahn, who was fired at Auburn a year ago after going 68-35 in eight seasons, has been on the Power 5 side of the playoff equation. In 2017, Auburn vaulted all the way to No. 2 in the next-to-last CFP rankings despite two regular-season losses. The Tigers made their move on the strength of November wins over both Georgia and Alabama, but lost to Georgia in a rematch in the SEC championship game and didn’t make the playoff.

As fate would have it, Auburn played UCF in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to cap that season and lost 34-27. The Knights were unbeaten but couldn’t climb any higher than No. 12 in the final CFP rankings.

“I felt like when I was the head coach at Auburn … the right thing to do was to expand the playoff,” Malzahn said. “Whether it’s eight or 12, it’s what is best for college football. You look at some of these traditional big-time bowl games, and in the last couple of years they’ve lost their value. Look at all the players opting out with just four teams getting in.

“An expanded playoff would give college football a shot in the arm.”

A year ago, both Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina would have made the playoff under the proposed 12-team format, and Malzahn said the 2017 UCF team that beat Auburn in the bowl game “could have played with anybody in the country.”

As much as anything, Malzahn said an expanded playoff would help the non-Power 5 teams recruit, especially the Knights in the talent-laden state of Florida.

“It’s real now, and you can sell that to the players,” Malzahn said. “We already have so much to sell, the fact that we have 72,000 students, 322,000-plus living alumni whose average age is 36 and they’re all on social media. The name, image and likeness rules will really be beneficial to our players here in this market as well.

“I don’t think college football will be looked at the same way, the Power 5 teams and … the non-Power 5 teams. I think it will just be more college football.”

Malzahn said UCF would continue to aggressively pursue games against big-name schools, but admitted that it has been difficult to get any takers. UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir has said he would play the likes of Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas and USC “in a phone booth if we have to.” As he approaches his 10th season as a head coach, the 55-year-old Malzahn promised the Knights would get the best version of him.

“I’m going to get back to being me,” said Malzahn, the only active head coach in college football to beat Nick Saban at Alabama more than twice. “I’m a former high school coach who loves coaching offense and being creative in everything that goes with that. I’ll call plays the rest of my career. That’s what I love to do, and I’m inheriting an offense that’s been really good and plays fast. I’m inheriting a quarterback [Dillon Gabriel] that I think is one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

“This is a place … you can kind of make it your own. Everything is set. We’ve just got to do it.”

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