Cincinnati stayed at No. 7 in the second installment of the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday.
The Bearcats (8-0) didn’t play last week, and won’t play this week — but their path to the four-team Playoff remains the same: They need help.
Cincinnati needs No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) to give No. 3 Clemson (8-1, 7-1 ACC) a second loss. The Bearcats need No. 1 Alabama (8-0 SEC) to beat No. 6 Florida (7-1 SEC) in the SEC championship game. And it wouldn’t hurt if No. 5 Texas A&M (6-1 SEC) lost another game, either.
None of those involves No. 4 Ohio State (4-0 Big Ten), though ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit did float an underhanded way for Michigan to potentially hurt its rival’s chances. We’ll leave the in-state Buckeyes out of it.
Even if all that happens, the CFP committee might find excuses to leave Cincinnati out. Any excuse to exclude the Group of 5, however, runs contrary to some statistical evidence in the Bearcats’ favor. Cincinnati belongs in the conversation with the other Playoff contenders, and there is one statistic in particular that backs that case up.
Of those top seven teams, Cincinnati’s opponents have the best winning percentage this season. In fact, the Bearcats are the only team whose opponents have a winning percentage better than .500:
That’s a byproduct of conference-only scheduling (Cincinnati’s lone nonconference opponent to this point is Austin Peay). But you can’t say the Bearcats haven’t beat anybody when you look at the rest of those contender’s schedules.
Cincinnati also has two wins this season against opponents that were ranked at the time they played: the same as Notre Dame and Ohio State have (Alabama is the only one of those top seven teams to have three wins against opponents). The Bearcats secured wins against No. 22 Army and No. 16 SMU, and also have a ranked opponent left on the schedule in No. 24 Tulsa — a team they likely will have to beat in the regular season and again in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Yet the perception is that Cincinnati’s strength of victory took a hit when SMU lost to 52-38 to East Carolina on Nov. 28. So, the argument against the Bearcats is the conference schedule.
Of course, Cincinnati will also get pitted against Ohio State, in more ways than one. The Buckeyes beat the Bearcats 42-0 last year and, even if the Playoff committee insists that result doesn’t matter in 2020, the perception of that result is still out there.
if #Bearcats finish 10-0 they’d have 6 wins vs teams with winning record. Right now OSU has one….with potential to add one in the add-on game championship weekend.
— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) December 2, 2020
What does all of that mean for Cincinnati’s playoff hopes? Unfortunately, not much. The Bearcats aren’t tied to the Buckeyes, who will get in the College Football Playoff if they stay undefeated no matter how many games are played. Ohio State wins that battle every time with that Big Ten label. That is reality.
If the Buckeyes somehow lose, then the arguments against No. 12 Indiana (5-1 Big Ten) or No. 14 Northwestern (5-1 Big Ten) would be more intriguing. Could the Bearcats beat those teams? Maybe. Will that scenario happen? Probably not.
Cincinnati will have to rely on Notre Dame and Alabama to win those conference championship games to knock out Clemson and Florida. That could leave one-loss Texas A&M or, potentially, a two-loss Big 12 champion such as No. 9 Iowa State (7-2, 7-1 Big 12) or No. 11 Oklahoma (6-2, 5-2 Big 12).
Would those teams deserve to get in at Cincinnati’s expense? Absolutely not. No two-loss team has reached the Playoff at this point. But no undefeated Group of 5 school has, either.
If it comes to that, you should go with the undefeated team that has played through the COVID-19 pandemic to perfection on the field. Cincinnati would be a top-10 team, even if that wasn’t the backdrop for the 2020 college football season.
Cincinnati belongs in this CFP discussion, right up until the end.
Make no excuses about it.