One of my first introductions to college football was the June Jones and Colt Brennan era of Hawaii football. It was like magic to discover the run and shoot. Before that, all I had was the NFL - before teams were willing to consistently open up their passing games - and Notre Dame under Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.
One thing I couldn’t understand at the time was why the BCS more or less ignored those Hawaii teams. After all, they were unbeaten and scored at will. The WAC wasn’t good enough, though, so they never were really taken seriously at the time.
I was young then and didn’t entirely understand why they weren’t given a shot. I think I have a better idea now. If I had been a bit older, I might have remembered those great Utah teams quarterbacked by Alex Smith, or Tulane and Marshall going unbeaten and ignored in back-to-back seasons to end the 1990s.
Those Hawaii teams stuck with me as I became obsessed with the whole of college football. I stayed a Notre Dame fan, after all, I was being raised Catholic in Massachusetts. That’s just who you rooted for. Still, I wanted to ingest the sport in its entirety. That meant learning about the SEC and traditional rivalries like Red River and The Game, sure. It also meant developing a fascination with the triple option and service academies. It meant learning to love Boise State’s blue field, and MACtion. I went to the games for my local team, then FCS UMass. And, yes, it meant staying up late, even if it meant sneaking out of bed and putting the TV on mute, to watch Hawaii post-June Jones.
In this respect, I was just a football obsessed kid. I memorized stats, names, legends. I also know that I wasn’t the only one to do this, who loved every little detail of the game. It’s a love and passion that led me to this point, where I write about college football for a living.
This was also the time that I started to watch Boise State with fascination. Their blue field was stuck in my mind as a child, and they were great to back it up. During the Chris Petersen years, the Broncos went 92-12. In five seasons out of eight, Boise State won at least twelve games. They also were never given a sniff at a National Championship, no matter what they did. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t fair, and even though I had no ties to Boise State, I let it keep me up at night.
A few years later, I was choosing colleges and ended up with UCF at the top of my list. So, I started watching the Knights. It was a good year to do so too, because my junior year of high school UCF went 12-1, won the AAC, and won the Fiesta Bowl. At the time, the AAC was a BCS conference. Still, that was in name only and they were looked at as second class. The Knights finished the regular season behind multiple two-loss teams and three-loss Arizona State.
That was the last year of the BCS. The system had made it so only a certain class of program possibly could win a National Championship, which lead to questions about its legality under anti-trust laws. The College Football Playoff was supposed to fix this and was billed as everyone having an equal chance to make the Playoff. They just had to play their way in. Of course, that was always a lie. It was still a system designed for the haves, not the have nots.
Houston stubbed its toe once in 2015, but still finished behind four teams with at least three losses. In 2016, Western Michigan went unbeaten. They finished behind six three-loss teams and a four-loss team in the Playoff rankings. Then, in 2017, came UCF. It’s probably not worth rehashing the story that everyone knows, but I’ll do it briefly. UCF turned around from a winless 2015 to an unbeaten 2017 season. That year, there was a clear and obvious effort to keep them out of the Playoff. In fact, an Alabama team that didn’t even win its division was given access instead. UCF beat Auburn, who beat Alabama, in the Peach Bowl and declared themselves National Champions.
It was, and is, a controversial decision. The NCAA recognizes the claim, but many people saw it as a joke. UCF’s point, however, was that the system was rigged against them and they had to take what they earned because it would never be given. Worse, they would never be given a chance to earn it in the Playoff. This was only proven when they went unbeaten again in 2018, only to be left well outside the Playoff and looking in again.
In 2020, Cincinnati finally took their place as the top G5 team. They went unbeaten but weren’t deemed impressive enough to make the Playoff. Luckily, for the Bearcats and all fans of G5 football, 2021 was the perfect storm.
It had long since been said that a G5 team could make the Playoff if they just scheduled two to three Power 5 opponents, preferably ranked ones. Then go unbeaten the year before, to hype them up, preferably play in the AAC, and go unbeaten again. This hypothetical G5 team would also need a lot of help. 2018 UCF didn’t have that out of conference strength, while McKenzie Milton’s injury provided the committee with an additional excuse. Still, all this was hypothetical and said to appease those G5 crybabies. If you showed them a path, even an unattainable path, then they’d have to shut up.
Well, Cincinnati found that path. They beat Notre Dame on the road, went unbeaten, and watched three P5 conference champions lose multiple games. The selection committee had no choice but to begrudgingly give Cincinnati the #4 seed, with no other excuse to keep them out.
Now, there are going to be smug gatekeepers ready to tell us that we were wrong for saying there has always been an effort to keep the G5 out. They’ll use this year as an excuse to not update the system and never change. It’s cruel.
At the same time, Cincinnati has given us something that we’ve never really had before. That’s hope. Actual hope. Not a force fed synthetic hope. Real hope. Win a game, a single game, and they’ve proven that G5 teams can compete and deserve more respect than they’ve ever received before. The arguments to keep them out will falter, because it can’t be said that G5 teams can’t compete or that the P5 team only lost because they didn’t care enough about being there. So, while I’m not a Cincinnati fan, I’m rooting for them desperately.
Cincinnati, go win for Hawaii and Boise State. Win for Tulane and Marshall. Win for Utah and TCU. Win for Houston and UCF, even if you don’t like your conference rivals. Win for the AAC that you’re leaving behind for the Big 12. Win for every G5 team and fanbase that has, for a second, dared to dream. I don’t doubt that you can beat Alabama. So, kick them in their teeth. Do it for yourself, and do it for the rest of the little people.