It is too early to assume an undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats team would be invited by the College Football Playoff committee to participate in their annual four-team invitational tournament. But it is not too early to expect they would not.
It has been charming to see so many members of the college football media endorse the Bearcats’ CFP candidacy following their dazzling road victory over Notre Dame, including our own Bill Bender. It was a little surprising to see a Capital One-sponsored fan vote posit Cincinnati as the nation’s third-best team behind SEC powers Alabama and Georgia, but that might have been the product of some frantic social media maneuvering from highly motivated Bearcats fans.
What surprised me a bit, though, were the results of a Twitter poll I designed that asked a simple question about the 2021 season: “Let’s say it’s the night of Dec. 4 and Cincinnati has won the AAC Championship game and finished undefeated. Will the College Football Playoff committee put them into the four team field?
Of 1,545 who voted, 47.5 percent said yes.
These people have far more faith in the CFP system than I do.
Every bit of evidence at hand says the answer will be no.
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We have seen the various members of the committee at work since 2014. That’s seven editions of the CFP. We have seen how they ranked accomplished, unblemished teams from outside the “Power 5” over the course of those years.
At 12-1 with only a three-point loss to Connecticut in 2015, Houston was ranked No. 18 by the CFP committee. With a perfect record in 2016, Western Michigan was No. 15. The committee insulted UCF’s 12-0 squad a year later with a No. 12 ranking, and when they repeated that achievement a year later, they advanced merely to No. 8, behind two power-conference teams that lost twice each.
Cincinnati has traveled this same path already, winning every regular-season game and the American Athletic Conference championship game in 2020 while dodging COVID-19 stoppages like everyone else. The Bearcats were ranked eighth and placed behind a Florida team that fell three times.
That is the environment these Bearcats will navigate if they are successful hurdling the various obstacles that remain in their season: a Friday night home game this week that’s an obvious setup for a letdown against feisty Temple; talented but unpredictable UCF at home a week later; No. 24 SMU at home before Thanksgiving and the persistent temptation to believe that all the most daunting challenges had been conquered when the Bearcats departed Notre Dame Stadium.
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Is it different because the Bearcats traveled to the most historically important venue in the sport and defeated an Irish squad that, at the time, carried a top-10 ranking? That is the hope that propels Cincinnati fans and all those who champion college football’s best middleweights.
But UC’s impressive road win against Indiana already has lost some of its heft as the Hoosiers fell to 2-3 with a 24-0 loss at Penn State, and there’s no telling how ND will fare in future games against Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina. Bearcats fans now must be nearly as consumed with future results of IU and Notre Dame as those of their own team.
To paraphrase my friend Brian Snow, a Cincinnati native who now is director of recruiting in Penn State’s men’s basketball program, a decline of either team would not be the Bearcats’ fault, but it would be their problem.
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And that’s presuming the committee would not to inject any competitive logic at all into arguments against Cincinnati beyond the typical, “Look at their conference.” Only 5-0 SMU, which earned a 42-34 victory over Big 12 member TCU, and 4-1 Houston are more than a game above .500.
We don’t know what will happen in any of the conferences that traditionally have sent its most successful teams to the CFP. (Well, we sort of know what’ll happen in the SEC). Ohio State could continue its rebound from failing against Oregon and flailing against Tulsa to defeat such opponents as Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and, let’s say, Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game. Oregon could recover from its overtime stumble against Stanford and roll through the rest of the Pac-12 season. Oklahoma hasn’t lost yet, but the Sooners have been devalued because they’ve not been dominant. If they unimpress their way to an undefeated season, though, the CFP committee’s MO would be to embrace them over anyone from a conference perceived to be less imposing.
There have been 28 teams invited to previous CFPs. None was from a conference outside the Power 5. No team from the AAC or the Mountain West or any such league has even come close. The convergence of a gifted Cincinnati team that entered the season with recent accomplishment and a schedule that offered the opportunity at Notre Dame has many hoping that established trend will be broken.
That’s what it is, though: hope. There’s was a business book about sales called, “Hope is Not a Strategy.” And still it remains an indispensable part of the plan for the best of college football’s outsiders.