NCAAF
November 6, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

An Undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats Team Should Make the CFP

Both the sports and real world have experienced things in 2020 that we never thought would happen. Odds are, there will be a few more shockers added to that list before the year ends. One such thing that could happen is a team from outside the power conferences could earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

On the surface, it seems next to impossible. But the Cincinnati Bearcats are making a strong argument. In fact, if the Bearcats can survive the regular season undefeated, there’s a strong argument that they could and should be included in the four-team CFP. Here’s why it should happen.

The Opportunity

The first question is whether there could be a spot for Cincinnati in the four-team playoff. The way things are shaping up this year, the fourth spot is wide open. The first three spots will likely go to the SEC champion (Alabama), ACC champion (Clemson or Notre Dame) and the Big Ten champion (Ohio State). But there’s little clarity on what team could end up in the fourth playoff spot.

The Pac-12 champion isn’t likely to be included in the CFP. Including the conference championship game, Pac-12 teams are going to play no more than seven games this season. Even if the conference champion is undefeated, a 7-0 team — in arguably the weakest of the five power conferences — isn’t all that impressive. Cincinnati, on the other hand, would be 11-0 if they run the table and win the AAC Championship Game. Moreover, Oregon and USC are the only ranked teams in the Pac-12 right now, and there are serious questions about either team remaining undefeated through seven games.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 has all but disqualified itself from involvement in the College Football Playoff. Heavyweights like Oklahoma and Texas lost two games early in the season, all but taking them out of the running. Oklahoma State is the only team in the Big 12 that has fewer than two losses. If the Cowboys were to win out and be crowned Big 12 champions, they would likely have a better argument than Cincinnati. However, the Cowboys still have to get past in-state rival Oklahoma and will then have to play Oklahoma, Texas or Iowa State in the conference championship game, so they have much to prove.

Granted, if Oklahoma State wins out, the Cowboys will have earned a top-four spot. Otherwise, the decision about the fourth spot in the CFP could come down to undefeated Cincinnati or a slew of two-loss teams. Right now, there are just a few paths for a one-loss non-champion to come out of the ACC, SEC or Big Ten. One would be for Saturday’s Clemson-Notre Dame loser to beat the other team if the two play again in the ACC Championship Game. Another would be two undefeated teams meeting in the Big Ten Championship Game. The third possibility would be the winner of Saturday’s Florida-Georgia game beating a previously unbeaten Alabama team in the SEC Championship Game. But if none of those scenarios happen, an undefeated Cincinnati squad would be able to put its resumé up against a bunch of two-loss teams.

Cincinnati's Resumé

So, how does the Bearcats' resumé measure up? Well, for a team outside of the power conferences that hasn’t been able to schedule a game against a power-conference team this year, it’s pretty good. For starters, the Bearcats have a win over an Army team that’s 6-1 and hasn’t lost to anyone aside from the Bearcats. Cincinnati also has impressive wins over both SMU and Memphis. While SMU and Memphis are not power-conference programs, those are still quality wins. SMU is a top-25 team, beating everyone but Cincinnati while Memphis has lost to just Cincinnati and SMU. More importantly, the Bearcats beat SMU and Memphis by a combined score of 91-23. They didn’t eke out those wins; they dominated two of the best teams in the AAC.

The Bearcats also have a chance to add a few more impressive wins to their resume. If all goes according to plan, they will have defeated Houston, a strong Central Florida squad and a tricky Tulsa team that nearly knocked off Oklahoma State. Cincinnati would also have a chance to add another quality win in the AAC Championship Game. Odds are that game would be a rematch with SMU. If the Bearcats were to enter that game undefeated and beat the Mustangs by a wide margin for a second time, it would be hard to argue that they’ve done anything wrong this season.

A close win at some point could hurt them, but if the Bearcats finish the season undefeated with every win coming by at least two touchdowns, they would have as strong a resumé as is possible outside the power conferences.

Do they pass the 'eye test?'

Of course, even if Cincinnati is undefeated at the end of the season and there are only two-loss teams competing for the fourth spot in the CFP, there will be questions about how good they are. The CFP Committee would likely debate the Bearcats based on the "eye test" to determine if they belong in the CFP Playoff or not. In that respect, Cincinnati does measure up, especially with the way they’ve pushed around quality teams like SMU and Memphis on both sides of the ball.

For starters, they have Desmond Ridder, who is as dangerous with his legs as any dual-threat quarterback in the country. While his passing numbers aren't eye-popping, he’s taken a huge step forward this year with regard to his accuracy and ability to throw the ball downfield. The Bearcats also have skill players who could line up for any power-conference team. In fact, the team’s third-leading rusher, Jerome Ford, and second-leading receiver, Michael Young, are transfers from Alabama and Notre Dame, respectively. The Bearcats also have an offensive line that passes the eye test with experienced upperclassmen, including Michigan transfer James Hudson.

On the other side of the ball, Luke Fickell once again has a defense that could easily pass for a quality power-conference team. The Cincinnati defensive line is as deep as any in the country. That unit has bullied teams like SMU and Memphis that aren’t used to getting pushed around. The eye test says that the Bearcats can hold up in the trenches against the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State as well as any team those heavyweights have played this year.

But Will It Happen?

Ultimately, Cincinnati making the College Football Playoff is still a long shot. Oklahoma State still needs to lose another game and  Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State would need to remain undefeated, which would help ensure that there aren’t any one-loss non-champions in the power conferences outside of the largely irrelevant Pac-12. On top of that, the Bearcats still need to take care of the things they can control. Cincinnati must remain undefeated and look good doing so to convince the CFP Committee that they pass the eye test.

It’s important to remember that the deck is still stacked against teams from outside the power conferences like Cincinnati. However, the craziness that is 2020 has created a path for the Bearcats to get there. If things play out a certain way and Cincinnati can win out, it’s absolutely possible for it to happen. More importantly, if the Bearcats go undefeated and blow out one team after another, they should get a chance to play in the College Football Playoff.

Photo: Getty Images