Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 22, 2021

An Autumn Tease, Or History In The Making?

“We’re number two!”  Okay, there have been no reports of a mob of excited students at the University of Cincinnati exulting with a chorus of that admittedly odd proclamation, but it is certainly noteworthy that in this week’s Associated Press college football poll, the Bearcats claimed the team’s highest ranking ever, behind unanimous number one Georgia and ahead of Oklahoma.  Cincinnati switched places with the Sooners in the AFCA Coaches Poll, but in both rankings the voters placed the American Athletic Conference team among the top four programs in the country.  The significance of that lofty position, as every college football fan knows, is that the season ending playoff to determine a national champion is, at least for now, limited to four teams, none of which, other than traditionally independent Notre Dame, has ever been from a conference outside the Power 5 of the SEC, Big 10, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12.

Not only have the second-tier conferences in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, collectively known as the Group of Five, never been represented in the season-ending tournament, no member school has ever come particularly close to crashing the College Football Playoff party.  In 2014, the CFP’s first year, the final rankings by the selection committee had Boise State 20th, and Group of Five teams haven’t fared much better since, with only two placing in the top-10 in the selection committee’s season-ending assessment.  The University of Central Florida in 2018 and Cincinnati last year both wound up 8th, which is impressive to be sure, but not really within shouting distance of a playoff spot.

This season’s first CFP rankings won’t come out until another two weekends of games have been played, and the listing by the thirteen-member selection committee, which currently includes eleven members with ties to Power 5 schools, is entirely separate from the two major polls.  Still, the Bearcats’ spot in what amounts to a playoff position in the traditional rankings has caused rampant speculation that this could finally be the year for a Group of Five breakthrough.

If so, it will be just one more unlikely turn in a very strange collegiate season.  Each of the four teams that participated in the last CFP, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Notre Dame, has lost at least once, with the Tigers already tasting defeat twice.  Clemson fell to Georgia in its opening game, then was upset in overtime by North Carolina State three weeks later, ending any chance of extending coach Dabo Swinney’s record of six straight CFP appearances.  Alabama, ranked number one at the time, was stunned 41-38 by unranked Texas A&M the weekend before last, on a 28-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.  And Ohio State has poured it on against weak opponents the last four weeks, trying to erase the memory of a 35-28 loss to Oregon in mid-September.

Then there is Notre Dame.  The Fighting Irish often seem to be highly ranked on the strength of nostalgia as much as performance.  That was the case this year when the preseason polls put Notre Dame in the top-10.  That ranking quickly tumbled when the Irish began the campaign needing overtime to beat Florida State, then barely held off Toledo.  A couple of more impressive wins followed, but in a game that could wind up defining the season for both schools, on the first Saturday in October visiting Cincinnati raced out to a 17-0 halftime lead and coasted to a 24-13 victory at South Bend.

Other highly ranked teams have stumbled as well, including Iowa, Oregon, and Penn State.  Given the bias among both those with votes in the polls and especially members of the CFP selection committee, every upset to date was necessary to give the Bearcats any shot at playing in either the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve, this season’s two CFP semifinal games.  For despite Cincinnati’s current poll standing, there’s plenty of reason to think that when it’s revealed early next month, the initial CFP ranking won’t place the school in the top four.

The committee has always made clear that it places great weight on strength of schedule, meaning the key question for contenders may not be did a team win, but what opponent did it beat?  It’s a metric that can be measured in myriad ways, as evidenced by the number of different computer programs that do so.  It’s also one that drags down the ranking of top Group of Five teams, which must play much of each year’s schedule against relatively weak conference foes.  That’s the position in which Cincinnati now finds itself.  Having completed the non-conference portion of its schedule, the Bearcats will be heavy favorites to go 12-0, and an upset loss in any AAC conference game will end the team’s hopes for a spot in the playoffs.  But even assuming it rolls up big victories over the likes of Tulane and South Florida, Cincinnati may see its strength of schedule ranking slip as the rest of the season unfolds.  And by this metric the Bearcats have no room to give.  Despite the team’s number two AP Poll position, two major rankings based on computerized strength of schedule models put Cincinnati 5th (Jeff Sagarin) and 9th (Kenneth Massey).   

The metric is not meaningless, and those who scoff at the idea that any Group of Five team could be competitive in the CFP might be correct, though we’ll never know for sure until the day finally comes when one takes the field in a semifinal.  Whether that’s this year depends not just on what Cincinnati does over its final games, but also on how Notre Dame fares.  The Bearcats’ marquee win will gain luster if the Irish also win out but will diminish each time Notre Dame loses or even struggles against an inferior opponent.  Should that happen, a one-loss Alabama or Ohio State, or a flawed ACC champion, potentially Pittsburgh, or some conference runner-up, will very likely find more favor among selection committee members predisposed to favor the Power 5.  For all the midseason speculation, the deck still seems stacked against the Bearcats.

Perhaps they already know that at Nippert Stadium.  Maybe head coach Luke Fickell and athletic director John Cunningham already concluded that the only way to beat the big boys is to join them.  After all, as part of the ongoing reshuffling among college conferences, the Bearcats have announced plans to decamp from the AAC in favor of the Big 12 as soon as 2023.  But before Cincinnati renders the issue moot by joining the Power 5, maybe this year’s team will make some long overdue history.

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