Plotting Cincinnati’s Path to the College Football Playoff

Head coach Luke Fickell of the Cincinnati Bearcats is seen during the game against the Houston Cougars at Nippert Stadium on November 7, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In the most unconventional season in college football history, the Group of Five is making statements. Entering this year, no Group of Five team had ever been ranked higher than No. 13 in the first College Football Playoff Rankings of any season, nor had any team been ranked higher than No. 8 in any of the 37 rankings in the first six years of the playoff. And the Group of Five never had more than five teams ranked in one week, nor did the Sun Belt have multiple teams ranked in the same week.

Cincinnati broke the first two records when they debuted at No. 7 in the Week 12 rankings, and Louisiana helped break the other two records when appearing at No. 25 in the Week 13 rankings. All four are important statements in the Group of Five’s push for national contention, though all four pale in comparison to the ultimate statement: playoff appearance. 

The Group of Five has never been a serious playoff contender. Even during UCF’s “national championship” season in 2017, the Knights maxed out at No. 12. And in 2018, in recording the Group of Five’s highest-ever ranking, UCF was only No. 8, behind two two-loss non-conference champions. That’s not a true playoff contender, nor was No. 7 Cincinnati in this year’s Week 12 Rankings.

Through the first nine weeks of the season, Cincinnati was relevant in the playoff picture. A microscopic blip on the radar but still in the picture, nonetheless. The Bearcats smashed Houston in Week 10 but their playoff hopes were shattered with Notre Dame’s double-overtime over Clemson and Florida’s impressive win over Georgia. Suddenly, two conferences were in a strong position to land two playoff teams and the Group of Five was done. Even with Wisconsin’s loss to Northwestern two weeks later and continued mediocrity throughout the Big 12 and Pac-12, Cincinnati (and, to a lesser extent, BYU) had no reasonable path to the playoff. 

The conversation was over.

The conversation was not over. With Ohio State’s season in jeopardy, Notre Dame rolling, and two remaining games against current No. 24 Tulsa, Cincinnati, who currently holds the seventh-best national championship odds, has a path to the playoff. It’s narrow but there is a path.

Cincinnati’s Playoff Path

There are several scenarios in which Cincinnati could earn a playoff spot. Here’s the most realistic:

Alabama wins out, defeating LSU in Week 14 and Florida in the SEC Championship (convincingly) to secure the No. 1 playoff seed as the 10-0 SEC champions.

Notre Dame wins out, defeating Syracuse in Week 14 and Clemson in the ACC Championship (convincingly) to secure the No. 2 seed as the 11-0 ACC champions.

Texas A&M wins out, defeating Auburn and Tennessee in Weeks 13 and 14, respectively, to secure the No. 3 seed as the 8-1 non-SEC West and non-SEC champions. 

Cincinnati wins out, defeating Tulsa in Week 14 and the AAC Championship to secure the No. 4 seed as the 10-0 AAC champions.

Ohio State is ruled ineligible for the Big Ten Championship after one more cancellation (e.g. vs. Michigan State in Week 14) and finishes 5-0. 

In this scenario, the Buckeyes are the biggest threat to Cincinnati. Despite four fewer games, Ohio State remains three spots ahead of Cincinnati in the Week 13 rankings, indicating the committee sees a large gap between the two teams. The gap would presumably shrink if Ohio State can’t finish 6-0 in the regular season and win the Big Ten Championship but it still may exist. And if it exists, could Ohio State finish at No. 3 and Cincinnati ahead of Texas A&M at No. 4? 

The playoff is narrow and cloudy but that’s a shockingly plausible path for a Cincinnati team that was, in my opinion, eliminated from contention two weeks ago.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88 

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