On New Year’s Day, UCF walked off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a perfect 13-0 record and carrying a trophy to the locker room after a 34-27 win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. It was symbolism at its finest.

In one week, that same stadium, located in the heart of Atlanta, will be the hub of the sports world. On Jan. 8, someone is going to exit Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the champion of the fourth College Football Playoff. And while the winner of that game will be recognized as the undisputed king of college football, what transpired on Jan. 1 shouldn’t be ignored.

Because when UCF left trotted off the field in Atlanta, it wasn’t just the Peach Bowl champion, it was a national champion.

Don’t worry, I can hear you laughing. But your loud, disapproving tone doesn’t alter my thought process. And your “they ain’t played nobody” argument isn’t worth my time. On New Year’s Day, Scott Frost and the No. 12 Golden Knights went toe-to-toe with an SEC giant and beat No. 7 Auburn.

The same Auburn that reached the SEC Championship Game at the end of the year after a 10-2 season. The same Auburn that “whipped the dog crap” out of top-ranked Georgia and stuffed No. 1 Alabama a week later. The same Auburn that everyone believed was a true College Football Playoff contender.

 Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

UCF deserved at least some consideration when the College Football Playoff selection committee met for the final time on Dec. 3. Instead, they were treated as that token Group of Five program that earned its place in the national spotlight but was expected to fall flat on its face against one of the sport’s heavyweights.

Boy, did Frost and the Knights disprove that theory.

Typically, I don’t fall on this side of the coin. I’d traditionally argue that UCF took advantage of an opportunity rather than proved it belonged in the national conversation. But not this time. The Knights deserved some consideration from the College Football Playoff committee, much more than it received.

UCF finished the year 12-0, beating everyone on its schedule and claiming an American Athletic Conference championship. Maybe those aren’t the most impressive credentials, but was that résumé much really that much worse than Alabama’s out of the SEC?

The Knights beat a ranked Memphis team twice, the only team to beat the Tigers in the regular season. They won in a shootout against USF, which spent much of the year in the Top 25. Wins over a potent Navy team and a healthy(ish) Maryland team in College Park were pretty good, too. And we didn’t even mention that offense, which averaged an eyelash under 50 points per game, the best in college football.

All of that just two years after the program finished 0-12.

Yeah, UCF should’ve gotten more respect.

If there was ever a year for the College Football Playoff to expand its reach and be more inclusive to its Group of Five partners, this would’ve been it. Alabama didn’t win its division and didn’t have many marquee wins on its schedule. Ohio State won the B1G, but got blown out twice this season by Oklahoma and Iowa. USC was inconsistent.

We flipped between the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes until we were blue in the face, without so much as a serious mention of Frost and his Knights. We were unwilling to believe an up-and-coming program like UCF could actually compete in something as elite as the College Football Playoff.

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe they would’ve gotten blown out by Clemson, or maybe they would’ve shocked the world. Unfortunately, we’ll never know just how good UCF truly was, and whether or not Frost built a true college football dynasty in just two short years.

So when UCF walked off the field in Atlanta with a touchdown victory over Auburn, I had no trouble crowning Frost’s crew as national champions, even if it goes unrecognized by the rest of the college football world.

This isn’t an argument to expand the College Football Playoff, and it’s not an attempt to compare Group of Five programs to Power Five teams. But it was pretty clear all season that UCF was one of the four best teams in the sport. The eye test told us so. If we weren’t willing to accept that this year, a smaller program will never get the opportunity to compete on the sport’s greatest stage.

But that’s a different argument for a different day.

New Year’s Day was about Scott Frost guiding a forgotten program to a glorious finale. It could’ve been even more special, but UCF didn’t get that opportunity.

Atlanta will annoint college football’s official national champion next Monday. But don’t forget about the one it crowned on Jan. 1.