Cincinnati should be no. 4 in College Football Playoff
Entering Saturday's ACC Championship game, Notre Dame had one job: don't get blown out.
The Fighting Irish proved they were a team to be taken seriously early in November, when they beat Clemson 47-40 in overtime. When the two teams met on Saturday, the circumstances were drastically different. In November, the Tigers were without quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the face of college football, far and away the sport's biggest star. Notre Dame was also playing at home, in front of its fans, in South Bend.
The rematch pitted the Fighting Irish against a full-strength Tigers team with Lawrence behind center on neutral turf in Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the rematch played out like a disappointing flop of a sequel at the box office. Quarterback Ian Book was unable to get anything going offensively and Brian Kelly's defense looked outmatched by Lawrence, as the Fighting Irish were defeated 34-10.
A close loss against the Tigers would have been acceptable for me. Had Notre Dame kept it relatively close and it had been up to me, I still would have awarded the Irish a playoff spot. It's extremely difficult to beat the same team twice in a given season. A third part of the trilogy could have been a fitting ending and a tasteful opening round appetizer in the College Football Playoff. But seeing Notre Dame get manhandled by Clemson shifted my tone on the Fighting Irish; they should not be in the College Football Playoff.
If Notre Dame couldn't keep up with Trevor, how can we expect them to keep up with Mac Jones, Najee Harris, Devonta Smith and the offensive juggernaut Nick Saban has assembled in Tuscaloosa? Prior to Saturday's SEC Championship, Bama held a 10-0 record and won each of its games by an average of 32.7 points. A Bama-Notre Dame first round bout probably wouldn't have played differently from the Irish's only other trip to the College Football Playoff, in 2018, when they got trounced by Clemson, 30-3.
Finding the right team to replace Notre Dame in the top four is tricky. It's why I wrote earlier this week, that the College Football Playoff should be expanded to eight teams. Texas A&M, who didn't even clinch a spot in the SEC title game, currently sits at no. 5 in the selection committee's rankings. The Aggies already got a crack at Bama early in the season, losing 52-24. Why should they get a second chance, after losing their most important game of the season, and coming up short of the conference championship game? Better yet, why should Bama have to beat them a second time after the resounding win? Does anybody outside of east Texas want to see that matchup?
No. 6 Iowa State lost the Big 12 Championship game Saturday to Oklahoma for their third loss of the season, so they're out. With its sixth-straight Big 12 title, Oklahoma has a decent case. Despite starting slow, the Sooners are now clicking on all cylinders and look like an entirely different team from the one that lost to Kansas State early in the season. Still, their resume is stained by two losses.
No. 7 Florida fell to 8-2 following its disappointing lost last week to LSU. A two-loss Georgia team that lost by 16+ to Bama and Florida sits at no. 8. Woof. Meanwhile, a perfect 9-0 conference champion is lurking behind the pack at no. 9.
Of course, this conference champ that I mention is not a power-5 school. The University of Cincinnati competes in the American Athletic Conference, the offshoot of the now extinct Big East. After losing Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, West Virginia and the name of its conference, the American has had to fight hard to earn the respect of the committee, media and fans alike. In 2017, Scott Frost's UCF Knights finished the regular season a perfect 12-0, with victories over two ranked opponents, and at the time, it wasn't enough to garner a spot in the exclusive College Football Playoff.
While I would have liked to see UCF get a shot (again, the NCAA should expand the playoff!), ultimately, I was understanding of the committee's decision at the time. Year in and year out, it's difficult to gauge how good the best group of five team is. For every 2006 Boise State and 2010 TCU, there's a 2013 Northern Illinois clunker. UCF validated itself in the Peach Bowl with a 34-27 win over no. 7 Auburn, a squad that beat not one, but TWO no. 1 ranked opponents earlier that season. The victory also should have validated the American Athletic Conference; the best teams from the American may in fact be able to hang with the big boys.
Cincinnati rolled through the 2020 regular season. Assuming the Bearcats defeat no. 23 Tulsa in the American conference title game, they'll finish 2020 with a flawless 9-0 resume, with wins over three ranked opponents and another quality win over UCF. Their average margin of victory? 23 points.
If Cincinnati is snubbed of the College Football Playoff, unless the Playoff system is changed, schools like Cincinnati will continue to miss the Playoff in the future. The problem teams like Cincinnati face is similar to that of the classic predicament (from seemingly every 2000s TV show, mind you) of a dude fighting a girl. If the guy wins, he looks like a jerk because he beat up a girl. If the girl wins, well he just got embarrassed because he got beat up by a girl. There's nothing to gain to gain from it, and everything to lose.
Already, there's no incentive for the Alabama's, the Clemson's or Ohio State's of the sport to schedule a team like Cincinnati. Regardless of if they play any noteworthy non-conference opponents or not, if they take care of business in-conference, they'll still end up in the Playoff. They've built up enough goodwill and trust from the committee. Everyone knows they're legit. If for whatever reason, they were to play another blueblood program out-of-conference (i.e.: Notre Dame, Georgia or Oklahoma) and lose, they likely wouldn't be punished by the committee. It would collectively be interpreted as a quality loss. But if Clemson were to play Cincinnati and lose, while it would certainly move the needle for Cincinnati, Clemson's season could easily be undone by that loss. There's really no upside.
Unfortunately, this is the same eternal problem that non-power 5 conference teams face every year. They're regularly criticized for their strength of schedule (or lack thereof), yet rarely given the opportunity to play anybody significant. Sadly for us college football fans, we don't know what we are being deprived of. Could the actual best team in college football be missing out on an opportunity to compete for a championship? Or is Cincinnati the ultimate pretender? We'll never know, unless we trot them out there against the big dogs. If the bluebloods won't schedule the underdogs, the committee should schedule the underdogs for them.
While I feel strongly that Cincinnati belongs in the Playoff, I don't have confidence in the committee to get it right. Unfortunately, when a final four is selected by a committee, it can easily be manipulated like reality television. Bigger schools, with bigger fanbases, in bigger conferences attract more money. It's more convenient to play it safe, keep Notre Dame in, or include an SEC team, then watch that team get rolled by Alabama. But in a truly wild 2020, the committee should take a risk.
With clear blemishes on the resumes of teams currently sitting outside the top four, and no obvious power 5 resolution, there's never been a more perfect storm for this year's darlings, the Cincinnati Bearcats, to be the no. 4 team in. They might just finish what UCF started.