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Cincinnati Never Had a Chance to Beat Them. It’ll Have to Join Them.

The College Football Playoff committee has no intention of letting Cincinnati into its exclusive club—and the Bearcats have gotten the message

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’m not surprised the College Football Playoff committee ranked undefeated Cincinnati sixth, essentially signaling it won’t make the four-team field at the end of the season. Surprise would imply something unexpected, and snubbing teams like Cincinnati is how this whole “College Football Playoff” thing works. Last year, Cincinnati was 7-0 at the time of the first playoff rankings, and the committee ranked it seventh, behind three one-loss teams. This year, the Bearcats are 8-0, and the committee has ranked them sixth, behind three one-loss teams. So no, I’m not surprised.

I am, however, insulted. It’s not enough that the committee gets to pick whoever it wants; it also offers BS explanations for the choices it makes, apparently hoping we will believe its rationale even though we can see what it’s actually doing. We know that any football argument against Cincinnati is superseded by the committee’s vested interest in keeping the Bearcats out of the playoff. By rule, the committee includes athletic directors representing each of the five power conferences; Cincinnati is in the American Athletic Conference, which is not one of the five. Every year the rankings come out, and every year the committee places non-power teams significantly lower than they are in the two major polls.

In 2017, 7-0 UCF was 15th and 16th in the AP and Coaches’ polls but 18th in the first playoff rankings; the Knights finished the season undefeated and were left out of the playoff. The next year, 7-0 UCF was ninth in both polls but 12th in the first committee rankings; the Knights once again finished undefeated and were left out of the playoff. Last year, Cincinnati finished the season 9-0, ranked sixth by the polls. The committee ranked the Bearcats eighth, behind five teams that had lost games, which I consider to be the least defensible decision in the seven years of the playoff era. This year, Cincinnati is ranked no. 2 in the AP and Coaches’ polls and no. 6 by the playoff committee. The committee ranked the Bearcats below Oregon, which has one loss and is ranked lower than Cincinnati in both human polls as well as SP+, FPI, and all six computer ratings used by the BCS, the system that previously selected the sport’s championship contenders. We’re not stupid! We can see this! Don’t piss on Cincinnati and tell us that the Bearcats needed to play fewer games in the rain.

Until this year, the committee cited a lack of quality wins when explaining why it didn’t rank non-power teams higher. Those undefeated UCF teams never played a team ranked higher than 20th in the final playoff rankings; last year, Cincinnati’s best opponent was no. 24 Tulsa. But this year, Cincinnati has a win over no. 10 Notre Dame—a favorite of the playoff committee, which has won all its other games. Somehow, it’s not enough.

The committee questioned Cincinnati’s schedule strength, but its logic doesn’t check out: no. 3 Michigan State has only one win against a team with a winning record this season, but the committee ranked the Spartans three spots ahead of Cincinnati without a condescending remark about the rest of their schedule. It’s strange that the committee has suddenly decided that it cares about a team’s second- and third-best wins—but for the record, Cincinnati’s third-best win is a 14-point victory over Indiana, which Michigan State beat by five.

Cincinnati is the only AAC team in the rankings; the AP and Coaches’ polls each include Houston and SMU, both of whom are 7-1. This means it’s unlikely Cincinnati can do anything to improve on its standing since the committee is letting us know it doesn’t think any of the teams the Bearcats will play this season are good enough to be ranked. (In a truly hilarious twist, Oregon gets a quality win because of the committee’s decision to rank Fresno State, which has a worse record than Houston and SMU and is unranked in the Coaches’ poll.) Last year, Cincinnati fell in the rankings between the first release and the playoff despite running the table—a repeat scenario feels likely this year because the Bearcats have already played their toughest games.

The College Football Playoff has become dreary. The committee picks the same teams year after year, and the games are often blowouts. Sure, we have a pretty good feeling that Cincinnati would get its ass kicked by Alabama. But to prevent that from happening, the committee has let Alabama kick Oklahoma’s ass 1,000 times. Only 11 teams have made the playoff since it was introduced in 2014; all five of the teams ranked above Cincinnati are included in that 11.

The playoff was supposed to be a democratizing force for the sport after the unpopular BCS system. In a 2014 ESPN commercial promoting the playoff, a pair of Cincinnati fans are seen sitting at a diner counter, proudly proclaiming that there are “no more computers to keep us out.” (I’m not making this up.) In fact, things have gone the exact opposite way. The algorithms used to determine the BCS ratings were unpopular, but didn’t favor certain teams over others. The committee, meanwhile, is made up of people with their own preconceived notions and biases.

This year’s committee consists of five power conference athletic directors, two former Big Ten players, a former coach of an SEC school, a Pac-12 faculty member, and two people connected in any way to the five non-power Division I conferences. The AAC has actually never had a member on the committee—the closest it came was in 2014 and 2015, when the committee featured Mike Tranghese, the former commissioner of AAC forerunner, the Big East. But Tranghese hadn’t been affiliated with the conference in years when he served, and the conference hasn’t had anybody on the committee since.

While the committee makes a big deal about its recusal policies—it has a ceremonial hat rack, where members “leave their hats at the door”— members are only obligated to recuse themselves when the school they are affiliated with is being discussed. They are still allowed to advocate for schools based on their conference affiliations, even though their school could benefit from a conference mate making the four-team field. Those benefits are direct—the actual playoff payouts are paid to conferences, not schools, meaning committee chair Gary Barta’s Iowa makes a few hundred thousand dollars if Ohio State makes the playoff. But the bigger wins are indirect. There is no doubt that a conference that routinely sends teams to the playoff is more prestigious, popular, and profitable than one that does not. (You may have heard of the Pac-12.) Each year, the committee, predominantly made up of people affiliated with power conference schools, decides to make a clear distinction that only power conference schools are good enough to make the playoff.

This story has been written before—but things have changed. Soon, Cincinnati won’t have to worry about this anymore. The committee made it clear that only power conference teams would be eligible for championships, and Cincinnati listened. The Bearcats have already accepted a bid to join the Big 12, along with UCF, Houston, and BYU, helping fill a hole left when Oklahoma and Texas announced their intention to leave the league for the SEC. The Big 12 added these disparate schools for a clear reason: It has playoff hopes too. Only one Big 12 team has ever made the playoff—Oklahoma—and it’s leaving, so the conference added teams that can conceivably make it in the future. Going undefeated doesn’t actually get you into the playoff—but it may get you into the conference that can get you into the playoff.

It was an easy choice for the schools that accepted the call-up. Not only will they have legitimate access to a championship in their new conferences, joining a power conference will bolster them financially. Schools in the AAC make $7 million a year from their current TV deal; Big 12 teams make $34 million a year from theirs. That will likely change with Texas and Oklahoma leaving, but it won’t drop 80 percent. Cincinnati has leveled up.

All these good football teams joining bigger leagues will serve to reinforce the committee’s logic. The power conferences will now have even more of the best teams in the sport, making it even harder for any team from any other conference to put together a schedule worthy of earning a playoff bid. If Cincinnati ever goes 11-1 in the Big 12, and Coastal Carolina goes 12-0 in the Sun Belt, the same Cincinnati fans currently outraged at the committee’s power conference bias will be the first to cite the Chanticleers’ weak conference as the reason Cincinnati is more deserving of a playoff berth. The Bearcats may have had some disagreements with the bouncer while waiting in line, but now they’re in the club, so they stand by all of his policies.

As the best teams in the non-power conferences join power leagues, everyone else faces a steeper uphill battle. If the AAC with Cincinnati and Houston and UCF could never get a team into the playoff, what chance will it have without those three? The league’s lack of playoff potential makes its games less important, which makes its TV contracts less valuable, which makes its athletic department budgets smaller, which makes it harder for them to recruit well, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, power conferences that add teams are able to demand better TV contracts and make more money.

You can draw a direct line from the committee’s snubs of Cincinnati and UCF to the death throes of Conference USA. When Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston left the American Athletic Conference, the AAC reloaded by snagging six schools from C-USA. Three more C-USA schools left the league for the Sun Belt, and two are rumored to leave for the MAC. That leaves the conference with just three members. The conference’s attempts to add reinforcements are bleak—it’s landed New Mexico State, the second-best team in the greater El Paso region, but it may be rejected by UConn. Rejected by UConn. That’s embarrassing in every context besides trying to hit a layup over Breanna Stewart. The C-USA will die soon; the College Football Playoff committee killed it.

Power conference membership was not always a prerequisite for winning a championship. In the 1980s, schools from four conferences and three independent schools were named champions by the AP; in the 1990s, schools from six conferences won. In the past 15 seasons, there have been 11 SEC champions, three ACC winners, and one Big Ten winner. Twenty-five of the 28 all-time playoff berths have gone to members of four conferences, plus one for independent Notre Dame and two for the Pac-12. We have already seen a similar dynamic in men’s college basketball. As I wrote in 2018, the NCAA selection committee used to award at-large bids to teams from lesser-known leagues regularly. But now, teams from smaller leagues rarely get into the NCAA tournament without winning their conference tournament, keeping some of the likeliest Cinderellas from ever reaching the dance. With each school that moves to a bigger league to improve its tourney chances, the likelihood that their former league ever gets two NCAA tournament bids decreases.

College football has never been a sport in which everybody gets an equal chance of winning a championship, but it feels like we’re at the start of something uglier: A version of college football in which the most powerful teams drop the pretenses and look out only for themselves. As the SEC grows larger, other leagues form an “alliance,” and the Big 12 scoops up the best of the rest, it’s increasingly easy to see a future in which these leagues totally dissociate from everybody else. With the playoff, they’ve already formed a club that effectively bans other teams from winning championships. The other teams don’t have the option to rebel. They’re fighting it out to prove they deserve entry, seemingly eager to pull up the ladder behind them.

The committee’s insistence on only inviting teams from power conferences has done more than simply make each year’s playoff race boring: It has consolidated power even more thoroughly in the top few leagues. The way the committee tells it, this sport’s ecosystem is so top-heavy that no outsider could possibly be the best team in the country, even if they run the table. By holding that line, they’re actually making it happen, making clear to the best teams from small leagues that they must move up. This will slowly drain the life from smaller conferences, until they’re incapable of producing teams which can hypothetically justify playoff inclusion.

I’ve spent the whole playoff era rooting for someone from a smaller league to get a shot at a championship. The committee didn’t just prevent this from happening; it helped build a system in which it can’t happen. The powers that be wanted a college football world with no Cinderellas, and they spoke it into existence.