OH MY GOD HAVE YOU GUYS SEEN CINCINNATI PLAY THIS YEAR?
[Takes deep, Group of Five-biased breath]
Y’ALL: The Bearcats are, without question, one of the most complete and balanced and impressive-looking and downright dangerous teams to come out of the G5 in this Playoff Era. They’re ABSOLUTELY DESERVING, via whatever wonky counterintuitive logic-from-hell a committee could use, of the chance to participate in a four-team playoff following this pandemic phantom season.
On Saturday, the Bearcats took total command on the American Athletic Conference, thumping Memphis 49-10. And aside from that margin of victory and accompanying stats (see below!), the win carries extra narrative weight because it came against Memphis. The Tigers beat UC twice in the span of seven days last season, (34-24 on Black Friday and 29-24 in the conference championship) to win the AAC and an at-large bid to the New Year’s Six bowls. The only other team to defeat 11-3 Cincinnati in 2019 was Ohio State.
After a 4-8 debut season spent cleaning up after Tommy Tuberville in 2017, Luke Fickell’s Bearcats have gone 27-5 since. At present, UC is a tidy 5-0 with a win over an otherwise undefeated Army, and a cancelled game against fellow G5 upstart BYU (hope the unavoidable circumstance of losing a game where you could knock out arguably the other best G5 contender doesn’t come back to haunt both programs!).
If entertaining the idea of a G5 playoff candidate feels like a stale exercise, I can tell you the Cincinnati defense is inarguably legit right now: Memphis entered Saturday’s game at Nippert Stadium averaging 38.8 points per game and finished with just ten, seven of which came on a 92-yard touchdown pass by the Tigers in a UC coverage bust. If you remove that play and Memphis’ other chunk gain — a 44-yard pass — the Tigers had 185 total yards in the game and 2.9 yards per play, which is .9 more than their rushing total for the game (two!).
And this wasn’t a fluke. Last week, SMU came in averaging 42.6 points per game before managing only 13 against the Bearcats. AAC neighbor UCF is fourth in the nation with 45 points per game. If Cincinnati wins that game Nov. 21 with a similar defensive execution, they’ll complete a hat-trick referendum on the AAC’s best offenses.
I can also tell you the offense is legit right now: Cincinnati has scored more than 40 points in back-to-back games, and Desmon Ridder was an efficient 21-26 passing for a five-touchdown day against Memphis. His stats over the last two weeks are really good — nine touchdowns, 12.2 yards a rush and 11.6 a pass — and even in the disjointed logic of this season it’s safe to assume Cincy can keep it going against UCF (currently 55th in Defensive SP+).
It’s also worth noting this offense has enjoyed very long scoring drives — 75, 75, 70 and 90 yards against Memphis and 70, 72, 70 and 91 against SMU. This isn’t an attack predicated on short fields or quick bursts.
But … screw this.
[Exhales Group Of Five energy loudly, slumps]
I’m not gonna waste anyone’s time assembling a fact-based resume for a G5 team’s playoff inclusion. Pissing into an East Texas wind yields better results than trying to disabuse the committee in Dallas of their calcified ideas on competitive balance and strength of schedule.
It doesn’t matter. I mean, it certainly does, in actual football game ways — Cincinnati is fun to watch and alarmingly dominant in a league that usually sees that status earned via gaudy shootouts, not defense — but none of those numbers will change anyone’s mind about the Bearcats, the Group of Five, or the College Football Playoff. Since when does comparing the merits of one G5 program earned against other G5 programs distinguish them enough to warrant serious playoff consideration? The answer is, at least since the format’s inception, never. The requisite kind of Chaos isn’t possible in this format, it’s not allowed.
All five Power 5 conferences will play some semblance of a campaign, and even though the usual buffoonish arguments (“THE SEC DESERVES THREE SLOTS I’LL HANG UP AND SCREAM NOW”) seem especially troglodyte in this messy slog of a “season,” even the network running the selection acknowledges that only P5s have a shot at legit consideration.
And if this year’s minefield of asterisks, cancellations and logical hiccups can’t allow for a team as solid as this Cincinnati team to play Alabama, it’s proof the system is a closed loop to the Group of Five.
Cincinnati doesn’t have a ranked team left on their schedule, and they don’t play a Power 5 team at all, despite juggling to land two superior G5’s (Army and BYU) post-pandemic to replace Nebraska on their original schedule (yes — 2020 robbed us of this G5 “city school” marching into Lincoln and beating the brakes off of Big Red).
And besides, UCF has already played this scenario out: In 2018 the Knights went undefeated in the regular season and had one of their P5 games vs. UNC was cancelled (because of a hurricane, and they did also beat Pitt). And no matter how impressive that team looked, they couldn’t dent the playoff door.
Which brings us to the real, sober task at hand. In order to respect the joy these Bearcats are to watch, we have to maintain the aforementioned OH MY GOD CINCINNATI energy while embracing the cold reality that this sport’s championship designation system will absolutely not include them for recognition. And by we I mean me, but also we, because fans and media and even coaches and industry personnel have a habit of crafting a single, “worthy-or-not” narrative around otherwise entertaining G5 upstarts and ignoring all the fun.
To be painfully clear, I’m not advocating we release the Playoff or its corporate cabal from their horseshit double-standards and cronyism: This is a decent enough system for the Power 5 to determine a champion, especially compared to the bad old ways. But it absolutely does not represent all of FBS football, and its denial of that obvious fact still shimmers like a funhouse mirror of reason. Just like the old BCS.
No, The struggle here is not to convince whomever that UC is worthy, it’s to convince myself and y’all that we shouldn’t spend the entirety of their 2020 season measuring everything against a crooked system. I’m not going to waste energy on arguing the decision making process that leads to UC’s inevitable omission with a bunch of people who deem it necessary to gather in a hotel ballroom amid a pandemic to debate in person. We have a revolutionary digital medium designed to scream about sports, and you can even do it alone in the bathroom.
We have to enjoy this for what it is while it happens, even if their inevitable eventual exclusion will be served up with the usual logicless smarm and a ticket to the Cotton or Fiesta or whatever indoor warehouse gets the G5 game, where they’ll track-meet some “sleepy” or “disinterested” P5 team while a two-loss Georgia gets smeared across the Sugar Bowl by Clemson.
So, once again, with less desperation and more loving alacrity: Oh my God, have you guys seen Cincinnati play this year? They’re really good, and they’re worth watching one Saturday. Don’t worry about what happens after that.