Alabama and the state of Ohio lost. Clemson has lost twice. Georgia is on pole position for its first national title in more than 40 years. But in a college football year of the unexpected, perhaps the most surprising news is this: Cincinnati is the No. 2 team in the country.
With a record of 6-0, the Bearcats are now in line to be the first non-Power 5 team to make it to the four-team College Football Playoff. (Notre Dame is an independent in football, but its storied history, huge fan base and big budget make it considered the equivalent of a Power 5 team.)
But will Cincinnati make it? And how did that happen in a sport where a handful of elite teams always seem to be at the top?
Where did Cincinnati come from?
Cincinnati does not have a storied football history. It has never won a major bowl game, the Bearcats have a record of 8-9 in bowls and was 4-8 as recently as 2017, Coach Luke Fickells’ first season. But under Fickell, the team has since risen in the college football hierarchy with just two, three and one losses in the past three seasons.
Last year, Cincinnati was undefeated in the regular season, but was overlooked for the playoff, losing to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The team was ranked #8 in the Associated Press Top 25 this season, a sign that it was at least on the radar of fans and the news media.
Will the Bearcats make the playoffs?
Just about everyone agrees that Cincinnati must finish the regular season undefeated to make it to the playoff.
The Bearcats are done with their non-conference schedule and now have to play against other American Athletic Conference teams alone. Most of those teams aren’t particularly strong: Cincinnati, for example, is the preferred choice at Navy this weekend with 28 points.
The biggest threat in the six remaining games on Cincinnatis’ regular season schedule is Southern Methodist, which is 6-0 and the only other ranked team in the American at number 21. However, the game is in Cincinnati and the Bearcats could easily two-touchdown favorites. After the season, Cincinnati will have to play the conference championship game, possibly again against SMU. If the Bearcats win the regular season crown, they will host this game as well.
There is another wrinkle in the hopes of the Cincinnatis playoffs beyond game results. When the first official playoff ranking comes out on Nov. 2, there’s no guarantee that Cincinnatis’ spot will match his position in the AP poll, because the playoff committee is a different group of voters. In the past, the playoff committee has shown reluctance to rank teams from smaller conferences very highly.
Fickell acknowledges that bigger teams, even with a loss, may be preferable: Can Georgia come in with one loss now? We’ve seen it. Alabama? damn. Ohio state? We’ve already seen it, he said. It is what it is. I think those teams are taking advantage of what they’ve done. And I’m not saying they don’t deserve it, because they do.
Are they really the second best team in the country?
Many Power 5 supporters are skeptical that any team from any other conference could deservedly be number 2. Cincinnati played several weak teams to start the season, and their Conference opponents are well below the quality found in, say, the Southeastern Conference.
But the team has one big plus, a 24-13 win over Notre Dame in South Bend. Notre Dame is otherwise 5-0, is at number 13 and has beaten Wisconsin. Before the loss of Cincinnati, Notre Dame was widely propped up as a possible participant in the playoffs.
Still, computer rankings, which take into account the margin of victory and the strength of the scheme, tend to rate Cincinnati a little lower. Jeff Sagarin ranks the Bearcats fifth, and Kenneth Massey only ninth. Thirty-five eights model gives them a 37 percent chance of making it to the playoff, the fourth highest behind Georgia, Oklahoma and Alabama.
And as Cincinnati continues to play within the AAC, the strength of the schedule may diminish somewhat compared to major conference teams.
Look deeper into the stats and Cincinnati has some good numbers: it scores 43.5 points per game, sixth best in the nation, and only lists 13.7, third best. Jerome Ford’s 12 hasty touchdowns ranks him second in the country.
How unusual is this?
No team from any conference outside of the Power 5 the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 Conferences has ever made it to the playoff, and no team has even come close.
The inaugural playoff rosters in the 2014 season set the tone: No non-Power 5 team was higher than Boise State, all the way down at number 20.
Central Florida was the first team to really make an impact on the playoff rankings, finishing 12th in 2017 and eighth in 2018. And it took undefeated seasons to be ranked that high, still a long way from the top four places .
Last year, Cincinnati was 9-0 in the shortened regular season, equaling Central Floridas eighth place. Still, it seemed like even an undefeated team from one of the smaller conferences would never make the playoffs.
How could an expanded playoffs change things in the future?
The conferences are expected to expand the playoffs to 12 or eight teams in the future. While most additional slots could also go to Power 5, there could also be more room for smaller conference schools with excellent seasons.
But not many places. In the seven years of the playoffs, only four non-Power 5 schools have made the top 12. The extended playoff proposals suggest reserving at least one spot for smaller conference schools. As things stand, it seems unlikely that two or more will come in on a regular basis.
Cincinnati won’t really be bothered by it, though. By 2024, it will move to the Big 12.
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