Cincinnati football: Bearcats blaze playoff path for Group of Five

The Cincinnati football team has done what many doubted would ever happen in becoming the first Group of Five entrant into the College Football Playoff.

We’ve heard it for years. Time and time again. It’s echoed from coast to coast.

The College Football Playoff committee will never let a Group of Five team in, the system is set up to keep the rewards handed to Power-5 teams.

The response was predictable when those accusations went flying around.

Win your games. Play a tougher schedule.

And year after year, that axiom proved to be true.

In 2014, Boise State played a tougher schedule than some Power-5 teams, but two losses were an automatic disqualifier. The following season, Houston beat two Power-5 teams and two other ranked teams late in the season, but a loss to lowly UConn kept them out of the playoff picture.

In 2016, Western Michigan went undefeated, but with their only Power-5 win coming over a weak Illinois team, the committee didn’t see enough there to reward them with a shot at the title.

Then, 2017 and UCF happened. The Knights went unbeaten, but having two games canceled by Hurricane Irma — including an early-season matchup against Georgia Tech — gave the committee enough reason to relegate UCF to the Peach Bowl, where they upset heavily favored Auburn.

That’s when the discussion became heated and the accusations of “Power-5 bias” began to really take on some life.

A year later, UCF went through the regular season unscathed again, but once again a Power-5 matchup, this time with North Carolina, was canceled due to the imminent threat of Hurricane Florence. And once again, the committee rewarded their efforts with a New Year’s Six bow berth, but no shot at the playoff.

Cincinnati football became the torch-bearer for the Group of Five

It wasn’t until the Covid-shortened season of 2020 that the possibility of a Group of Five team making the College Football playoff seemed to be possible when the Cincinnati football team completed an undefeated season and began to lobby for their shot at the playoff.

The Bearcats were, of course, denied, and instead sent to face a top ten Georgia team in what seemed like a backhanded reward. While Cincinnati did lose the Peach Bowl game to the Bulldogs (on a last-second field goal) it seemed to open the eyes of some that there are teams who reside outside the Power-5 that need to be dealt with.

Here we are, a year later. The Cincinnati football program, having understood the assignment, completed it in grand fashion.

Win your games…check.

Play a tougher schedule, including wins over Notre Dame, Indiana, and No. 21 ranked Houston in the AAC Championship Game…check.

Have the right teams lose to ensure the Bearcats wouldn’t be leapfrogged when the final playoff rankings were released (and thanks, Baylor)…check.

Cincinnati football checked all the boxes, just like they were instructed to do, and guess what…

The committee did the unthinkable, and bestowed a deserving No. 4 ranking to the Bearcats, giving the Group of Five their first-ever team in the College Football Playoff.

In a season when everyone said Cincinnati would end up a bridesmaid just like every other Group of Five hopeful, the Bearcats found a way and thus blazed a path for every other team outside the Power-5 to join the party.

Cincinnati will now play No. 1 Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Win or lose, the Bearcats have made a huge stride towards more inclusion in the postseason, even if the much-discussed playoff expansion never happens.

Don’t call it a Cinderella season. The Bearcats were never that team. They weren’t searching for a glass slipper, they were hell-bent on crashing the glass ceiling and they did just that.

Two more games to keep proving the doubters wrong are all that remain for a season of dreams.

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