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Cincinnati Defied the Odds—and a Playoff System Designed to Exclude It

For years, the College Football Playoff selection committee has ignored teams from outside the power conferences. But the Bearcats wouldn’t be denied, and the sport is much better for it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes, it rules to be wrong. Over the past few years, it’s become abundantly clear that the College Football Playoff selection committee wasn’t giving teams from outside the Power Five conferences a fair shake. From Houston to UCF and beyond, Group of Five conference teams were repeatedly being ranked lower by the committee than by human polls and analytics alike, and it seemed that the committee would never allow one of these teams to make the playoff. That’s what I thought four weeks ago. If you asked Cincinnati fans, they probably would have agreed.

But Saturday night, Cincinnati won the American Athletic Conference championship game to improve its record to a perfect 13-0. Tens of thousands of extremely happy people stormed the field at Nippert Stadium. Everybody knew that the Bearcats had gotten the breaks they needed to make the playoff. Everybody who long believed the committee would snub Cincinnati knew they were going to be wrong, and it felt incredible.

These Bearcats beat every team they played—and more importantly, they beat a system designed to keep them out. On Sunday, it became official: Cincinnati is the no. 4 seed in this season’s playoff, and will face off against top-ranked Alabama in the Cotton Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

It’s a cathartic moment for a program that has now finished the regular season undefeated three times in the last 13 years. In 2009, the Bearcats went 12-0 and won the Big East; while the computers said they belonged in the BCS national championship game, the humans gave that spot to Texas instead. Then head coach Brian Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame, and the Big East subsequently crumbled. Just a few years later, the Bearcats were being coached by Tommy Tuberville and were left outside the sport’s new power structure. It felt like their time had passed.

Yet In 2020, the Bearcats went 9-0 in a pandemic-shortened season. Despite Cincinnati winning those games by an average margin of 22 points, the committee barely seemed to consider it as a playoff candidate. It was slotted eighth in the final rankings, after two-loss Oklahoma and three-loss Florida. The committee put Notre Dame in the playoff even though the Fighting Irish lost to Clemson by 24 points in the ACC championship.

That’s why this is also a cathartic moment for college football. While this sport has always prided itself on being chaotic and unpredictable, it’s long been impossible for most of the teams in the FBS to compete for national titles—regardless of how good they are or how well they perform. The BCS never had enough spots to accommodate non-power-conference teams, and the College Football Playoff committee never seemed to give those teams a real chance. The pervasive scent of bias ruined a championship structure that was supposed to bring fairness to the sport.

After all, it’s remarkable how much Cincinnati had to do just to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot. It had to win all of its regular-season games for two years in a row. While the committee claims that it only references one season’s results in determining its playoff selections, it clearly requires two great seasons from Group of Five programs before giving them serious consideration. In 2017, UCF went 12-0 but was only ranked 12th by the committee; the Knights had to go 12-0 again in 2018 to crack the top 10. The same pattern held true with Cincy, whose first undefeated campaign clearly wasn’t enough. It probably also helped Cincinnati’s case that the Bearcats played Georgia close in last season’s Peach Bowl—the Bulldogs won 24-21 after connecting on a 53-yard field goal with three seconds left—and that Georgia was exceptionally good this year. If 2020 Cincinnati had gotten blown out in that game, the committee likely would have assumed that the 2021 Bearcats weren’t on the level of elite power-conference teams.

Cincinnati also had to defeat its biggest competitor for the final playoff spot. The Bearcats beat Notre Dame 24-13 in South Bend on October 2. They whooped ’em, to be honest—Cincinnati was up 17-0 at halftime. It’s poetic that Cincinnati got here by beating the coach who left them in 2009 and the team that got the fourth spot in last season’s playoff.

The College Football Playoff’s selection protocol specifically mentions that the committee must consider head-to-head wins when evaluating otherwise comparable teams. That made it impossible for the committee to consider ranking one-loss Notre Dame ahead of unbeaten Cincinnati.

On top of all this, Cincinnati had to hope for an unusual season elsewhere. The ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12 all had multi-loss conference champions in 2021, marking the first time in the playoff era that three Power Five leagues had two-loss champs. If Baylor hadn’t made a remarkable goal-line stop to beat Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Cowboys would have been 12-1, and I feel confident the committee would’ve picked them over Cincinnati.

These Bearcats did everything that was asked of them two seasons in a row—significantly more than should have been asked of them. And now that we can stop focusing on them being a pawn in a debate in which they had no control, I’m excited to start talking about how amazing they are as a football team. This group is an absolute joy from top to bottom. Whether it’s cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner swooping in for a key interception, quarterback Desmond Ridder launching a beautiful downfield bomb, or running back Jerome Ford jetting past the defense for a 70-yard touchdown, it feels like the whole team delights in delivering game-changing moments. It’s only fitting that it has delivered a game-changing moment for the entire sport.

Cincinnati will face a monumental task going against reigning national champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide head into the playoff fresh off a rout of Georgia in the SEC title game, and some sportsbooks have installed Bama as a two-touchdown favorite against the Bearcats. One of the big talking points among those who have worked to limit Group of Five opportunities is that a matchup like this will inevitably end in a blowout.

But the playoff’s longstanding commitment to picking the same old teams has rarely resulted in anything but blowouts. In seven years of the event’s existence, there have been 14 semifinal games. Only three of have been close: the Ohio State-Alabama Sugar Bowl in 2015, in which Buckeyes third-string quarterback Cardale Jones shocked top-seeded Alabama; the Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl in 2018, in which the Bulldogs edged the Sooners in double overtime; and the Ohio State-Clemson Fiesta Bowl in 2019, in which Trevor Lawrence’s Tigers beat Justin Fields’s Buckeyes on a touchdown with two minutes left. Every other playoff semifinal has been decided by double-digits. Ten of 14 games have been decided by 17-plus points; that’s a 71 percent blowout percentage. We’ve seen Notre Dame and Oklahoma get blown out multiple times; we’ve also seen middle-tier conference champs like Washington and Michigan State get blown out.

If Cincinnati loses to Alabama by double digits, it will represent yet another boring semifinal. But if Cincinnati wins? It will be the first true Cinderella in College Football Playoff history. What even compares? The only thing that comes to mind is Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007, but that happened in the BCS era. Teams like Cincinnati have performed well in prominent bowl games under the current format—Houston and UCF won New Year’s Six bowls, for instance—but those results have typically been discounted as the other team being disinterested. The only upsets in the actual playoff have been upsets in name only, like no. 4 Alabama taking down no. 1 Clemson in 2018.

College football is my favorite sport, but the decisions made by the College Football Playoff selection committee have recently made it harder to love. That group has told us that dozens of the sport’s teams are not worth your time or attention. It has suggested that teams like Cincinnati need to be excluded to ensure quality playoff matchups, only for the playoff games to be overwhelmingly non-competitive. It has made the regular season less interesting without making the postseason entertaining. It has made it hard to focus on football because of all the other factors in play.

Regardless of what happens next, Cincinnati breaking through is a great victory for this sport. The Bearcats’ presence in the playoff is an argument that every league is worth your time and attention; that a sport that takes pride in chaos and unpredictability can sometimes deliver exactly that. I think Alabama will win the Cotton Bowl—but as Cincinnati has already proven, it rules to be wrong.