The Playoff Case for the Cincinnati Bearcats
No team currently in a Group of Five (G5) conference has won an officially recognized national championship during the Playoff, BCS, or AP Poll eras, dating all the way back to 1936.
Power five schools have almost exclusively monopolized that honor, with teams like the Army Black Knights and the BYU Cougars having three total as Independent schools and TCU winning one as a part of the now-defunct Southwest conference back in 1938.
There have been a few mid-major teams that have gotten close to competing for a championship. For example the Boise state Broncos had 13-0 and 14-0 undefeated seasons in 2006 and 2009, and even were ranked as high as No. 2 nationally for a few weeks during the 2010 season. Eventually the BCS system downgraded them in favor of a power five team with a tougher schedule.
Another G5 team with recent success is the UCF Golden Knights. The Knights finished the 2017 season 12-0, capping it off with a win against No. 7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl. They finished the season ranked No. 6 in the AP poll, and only ever got ranked as high as No. 12 in the eyes of the college football playoff committee, leading to criticism from UCF Head Coach Scott Frost and the UCF fanbase. Although they controversially claimed the 2017 National championship based on the unofficial Colley Matrix ranking system, it is not officially recognized in the eyes of the NCAA.
This brings us to the Cincinnati Bearcats. The Bearcats are a team that have taken the national forefront for G5 schools in just the last couple years. Head coach Luke Fickell has this American Athletic Conference powerhouse rolling, having gone 22-5 over the last 2 seasons. Now in 2020, the Bearcats are ranked No. 7 in the country by the AP poll, and are 4-0.
While there are several teams both ahead and behind the Bearcats that could usurp them by season’s end, there is a not-so-improbable scenario that could play out allowing the Bearcats to be the first G5 team to compete for a national title.
Firstly, their remaining schedule is manageable. Their remaining opponents are Memphis, Houston, East Carolina, UCF, Temple, and Tulsa, with 3 of those opponents ranking in the back half of the ESPN Football power Index (FPI).
As for the tougher opponents like UCF, Houston and Tulsa, the Bearcats can manage. Statistically, they are one of the best squads the G5 have to offer right now. They rank No. 18 in total defense, and are averaging 37 points a game. What’s more, they are coming off a dominating 42-13 win against a ranked SMU team. If this last game is any indication of what they can do to ranked opponents, they should be fine with their future matchups.
Secondly, the path in front of them is most likely going to clear. Ahead of the Bearcats right now is Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson.
Oklahoma State has two looming matchups with No. 16 Kansas State and No. 24 Oklahoma in the Bedlam game. It would be very surprising for Oklahoma state to get through both of these games without a loss, especially considering Oklahoma actually ranks ahead of them in the FPI. If they lose in an already struggling Big-12 conference, the Cowboys are most likely out.
For Notre Dame, they are most likely to lose to Clemson in two weeks, as they are underdogs to the No.1 team in the country and have looked inconsistent at times, i.e. their 12-7 performance against a 1-4 Louisville team. If the Irish drop a game here, it’s hard to consider them a top candidate for that fourth playoff spot.
As for Georgia, the Bulldogs are the only team in front of Cincinnati with a loss. Even if they win their hardest game left in the regular season against No. 10 Florida, the Bulldogs will most likely have to beat the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game to even be considered for the fourth spot after already losing to them once.
Finally, there aren’t any serious contenders to catch the Bearcats if they go undefeated. Every team behind them either already has a loss, or just began their season.
Oregon is the favorite to win the PAC-12, and even if they go through their 7 game season undefeated, it may not be enough in the eyes of the committee to warrant a playoff spot over an undefeated 10 win team. Teams like Texas A&M and Florida will likely incur second losses or not make their conference championship, teams like Penn St. and Wisconsin already have losses or are battling COVID-19 outbreaks. After that, the quality of the team diminishes noticeably, to were Cincinnati would likely pass the eye test over them.
All of these scenarios are theoretical, and as mentioned, lots of things need to happen for the Bearcats to get that elusive fourth spot and represent the G5 in the playoff. If this year has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. There may not ever be a time a G5 team gets closer to the playoff than this year, and the Cincinnati Bearcats are the team best poised to capitalize on it.
It’s unprecedented-but it’s also 2020. Anything can happen.