No one knows if Cincinnati has a real shot at the College Football Playoff. Most people suspect that Cincinnati fits the perfect mold for a Group of Five team trying to break the glass ceiling. They’re coming off an unbeaten regular season and Peach Bowl appearance, and they played an out-of-conference schedule that included two road games at preseason top-25 teams. They won both of those games, and even though Indiana has fallen off the map, the Notre Dame win was still a great game. Today, the AP Poll ranks the Bearcats second in the country.
Of course, none of this matters. What fans think, what analysts think, and even what the AP Poll thinks really don’t matter. What the College Football Playoff Committee thinks matters. They may draw from those places, but ultimately their criteria is, “To select the four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.”
That means that the Playoff doesn’t have to choose teams based on their record, or who is most deserving. They can look at an Alabama team that didn’t even make their conference championship game in 2017, and still put them into the Playoff. They’re likely going to rank Ohio State ahead of Oregon, despite their head-to-head win over the Buckeyes. They could easily dismiss Cincinnati as a G5 team that hasn’t played anyone good enough to join their club.
Ultimately, it’s in this reality that the argument against Playoff expansion falls apart. If the committee just chooses the four best teams out of a pool of eight, regardless of results, that they give real consideration towards, then the regular season doesn’t matter already. Expanding it would just make the regular season matter differently to new teams.
For now, though, there is a four-team College Football Playoff, and Cincinnati wants in. History says they have no chance. In 2015, UCF was ranked 15th by the AP Poll coming into the first committee rankings, where they came in 18th and never got ahead of 12th. In 2018, the Knights were 9th in the AP Poll, but only 12th in the committee’s initial rankings. At no point in either year was UCF higher in the committee rankings than the AP Poll. More than once, teams with three or more losses were ranked ahead of them.
Then UCF head coach Scott Frost said there was a “concerted effort,” to keep UCF out of the College Football Playoff, always giving them a large buffer in case of upsets between those in the club and the Knights.
UCF wasn’t alone in this. 2015 Houston was 18th in the AP Poll, but only 25th in the initial Playoff rankings. Western Michigan in 2016 did a little better. They were 17th in the AP Poll and 23rd in the Playoff rankings. 2019 Memphis was two spots behind their AP Poll ranking, sitting at 21st in the Playoff rankings and 19th in the AP Poll.
Just last season, Cincinnati started at 7 in the CFP rankings. That was the same as their AP Poll rankings. However, they finished 8th and went as low as 9th in those rankings, despite not losing a game. The Playoff committee will do what it takes to keep you out if you’re in the Group of Five.
If Cincinnati has any chance of making the College Football Playoff, they’ll need their strength of schedule to look great. A lot of people wrote off the AAC’s depth this season when UCF lost a couple of games and Memphis proved to be weaker than in past years. However, SMU and Houston are both really good.
Look for where these two are ranked in the initial rankings from the College Football Playoff committee. They’re both ranked in the AP Poll and with one loss each, they deserve to be in any top-25, especially ahead of the usual suspects who receive votes, like Wisconsin.
The second important team to look for is Notre Dame. The Irish have had issues, but if they stay in the top-10, then Cincinnati gets to hold onto a top-10 road win against a team that has been to two of the last three Playoffs. That’s huge. In total, it would mean, assuming Cincinnati wins out, three top-25 wins on their schedule. That’s hard to turn your nose at, especially when other options include Oklahoma, who would have three at the most if they go unbeaten, or Ohio State, who could have between two and four top-25 wins as well as their loss.
So, if SMU and Houston end up getting overlooked, the Bearcats’ resume is immediately shot. It becomes an excuse to keep them out. So, look where SMU, Houston, and Notre Dame end up. That will give you the heads up you need to see if the committee is planning on keeping Cincinnati out.