Column: Bearcats face uphill climb to crack playoff puzzle

NCAA Football

You’ve got to feel for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

No matter what lofty heights they reach – and a perfect record is certainly within reach after after a 45-28 win Friday night over lowly South Florida pushed the record to 10-0 – in all likelihood they will not be among four teams selected for the College Football Playoff.

What a pity.

Cincinnati is certainly worthy of more than a New Year’s Day consolation prize for building the best non-Power Five program in the country, but the cash-cow playoff has always been reserved for those who make the rules and count the bucks.

Even if the Bearcats finish 13-0, win their conference title and can point to a resume that includes an impressive road victory over Notre Dame, it probably won’t be enough.

”We’ve got to keep it going, keep the foot on the gas,” quarterback Desmond Ridder said. ”We can’t let up.”

The Bearcats headed home from Tampa having lost only one game in the past two seasons – a last-second defeat to Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

The mighty Bulldogs are clearly the best team in the land this season, which leaves three other spots to be sorted out over the next few weeks.

The selection committee has already thrown a couple of bones to the Bearcats, placing them sixth in its first poll and fifth in the most recent survey – the highest rankings ever for a non-Power Five team.

Granted, Cincinnati didn’t earn a whole lot of style points with last weekend’s 28-20 victory over three-win Tulsa, a game that came down to the Bearcats recovering a fumble in the end zone with less than a minute remaining.

But winning is really the only thing that matters. Luke Fickell’s bunch has done that about as well as any team in the country, improving to 41-6 since the beginning of the 2018 season.

”Nobody can live up to what other people want them to be,” the coach said. ”When it comes down to it, there is one objective: win a football game.”

If there was ever a season to reward a team from the Group of Five schools that generally get the shaft on selection day, this appears to be it.

Three of the so-called power conferences are a mess:

– Oregon is the only team worthy of a look from the Pac-12, which long ago stopped being an elite football conference. And the Ducks have a major blemish on their record, losing to a Stanford team that has only two other wins in 2021. Still, the playoff committee has them ranked at No. 3 behind only Georgia and defending national champion Alabama.

– Oklahoma is 9-0 and on track to capture another Big 12 title, but the Sooner had more style and strength-of-schedule issues than Cincinnati. The combined record of the teams they have beaten is 31-51, with only two of those squads currently above. .500.

– With Clemson taking a major step backward, the Atlantic Conference Conference has no one even sniffing at playoff consideration. Wake Forest, ranked No. 12, is the highest ACC team in this week’s CFP poll.

The remaining Power Five leagues are likely to contribute two or three teams to the playoff.

Georgia (9-0) is already a virtual shoe-in from the powerful Southeastern Conference, even if the Bulldogs stumble along the way. They have a defense for the ages and have barely been challenged, trailing only twice all season for a total of less than 11 minutes.

Presuming Georgia wins its last three regular-season games, not even a loss in the SEC championship game would be enough to keep the Bulldogs out. They’ll likely be matched in Atlanta against the Crimson Tide, which is ranked No. 2 by the playoff committee even with a loss to Texas A&M.

Of course, if Alabama knocks off the nation’s best team, coach Nick Saban would surely get a crack at his seventh national title in the past 13 years. No argument there.

The Big Ten will presumably will land at least one team in the playoff, with Ohio State currently at No. 4 in the CFP rankings. Michigan (No. 6) and Michigan State (No. 7) are right behind the Bearcats, with a bunch of head-to-headings between those three one-loss contenders still remaining.

Any team that navigates the November gauntlet without any further setbacks would certainly be a worthy selection.

Cincinnati’s best hope to make the playoff is Georgia completing a perfect romp through the SEC, which would likely eliminate Alabama or any other team from what is clearly the nation’s best conference.

Even then, though, we’re not at all confident that the committee would seriously consider an unbeaten Bearcats team over Power Five schools such as Oregon, Ohio State or Oklahoma, no matter their flaws.

Ridder sounded a bit naive when he expressed confidence in the Bearcats’ chances.

”All we care about is winning the conference championship,” the quarterback said. ”Once we do that, everything is gonna take care of itself.”

Here’s a dose of reality: Since the current playoff format was launched in 2014, no team from outside the Power Five has come close to getting the call. Those four playoff spots are always reserved for the big boys.

No matter what the Bearcats do, they are unlikely to break through that imposing bit of history.

Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25

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