College Football Playoff's biggest snub: Cincinnati left out of conversation

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5 min read

When the College Football Playoff was founded, it purposefully chose the blandest name possible.

“The College Football Playoff.”

That’s it. That’s all. It was a rare moment of vanilla in a sport known for its garishness — the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, anyone?

“We did want a simple and descriptive name,” executive director Bill Hancock said. “We did know that [the brand] would grow organically.”

Well, it has, indeed, grown and somehow even something as simple as the College Football Playoff isn’t accurate.

Stop the charade, this is no playoff for college football. It’s the Four-Team Invitational for Certain Teams in Certain Conferences in College Football.

Sunday’s rankings ignited a fresh round of arguing among the sport’s power set — No. 1 Alabama will play No. 4 Notre Dame, while No. 2 Clemson will face off against No. 3 Ohio State. All games will be played on Jan. 1.

No. 5 Texas A&M was left out and is plenty bitter about it.

The most telling and troubling ranking for the sport as a whole, however, was Cincinnati checking in at No. 8, nowhere near contention or consideration for a spot in the playoff.

The Bearcats went 9-0 and won the American Athletic Conference championship, almost universally considered the fifth- or sixth-best league in the country (depending on how bad things are in the Pac-12, which itself hasn’t gotten into the playoffs since 2015). Cincinnati recorded three victories over ranked opponents and seven wins by at least 14 points. It posted an average margin of victory of 23.3.

And this is no upstart. It was coming off consecutive 11-win seasons and since 2018 it is 31-5 under coach Luke Fickell.

The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between LSU and Clemson. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between LSU and Clemson. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Despite all of that, the Bearcats were never even in the discussion. They never stood a chance. And they never will.

Instead, 8-2 Oklahoma leapfrogged the Bearcats in the final poll and finished No. 6. Florida somehow stayed at No. 7 too despite the SEC title game loss. It’s a meaningless distinction. It says plenty about the state of the sport though.

Cincinnati might as well have been No. 80.

“The committee has great respect for Cincinnati,” said committee chairman Gary Barta, the athletic director at Iowa.

No, no it didn’t.

“Why do we even play the games?” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco asked last week.

He had a point.

This isn’t a column shouting that UC was one of the four “best” teams in the country, or that it could reasonably compete with, say, Alabama. It isn’t even an argument against what was chosen.

Setting the field is challenging. The committee has to make a tough call.

Not picking Cincinnati isn’t the issue. Not even considering the Bearcats is. This was straight-up disdain and all the proof necessary that this isn’t a system that represents all of college football.

If an unbeaten champion from outside the big-money leagues couldn’t even sniff the bracket this year, then forget it.

Call it a pandemic loophole, but due to the unique season there was plenty of opportunity here.

Ohio State, for example, played just six games due to the Big Ten’s slow entry into the season and had three games canceled. Cincinnati played 50 percent more games and didn’t enjoy a parade of bye weeks before its final three games like the Buckeyes.

It didn’t matter.

Other leagues eschewed non-conference games, which meant there was no data available to compare their relative strengths. Sure, the Big Ten, for example, has been stronger than the AAC in the past, but how do you know this year? The Big Ten never played anyone except itself.

Is the 2020 playoff about the 2020 season or is it about the perceptions built in years past? Do you get credit for beating Penn State because it is usually good? If so, then why does a Northwestern team that went 3-9 last season suddenly morph into a juggernaut?

Or why does beating Memphis and UCF, which went a combined 22-5 last season, not matter at all?

The Big 12 played non-conference games this season and it went 0-3 against the Sun Belt, whose 11-0 champion Coastal Carolina could never crack the top 10. One of those victories was Louisiana defeating Iowa State by 17 points, in Ames.

Yet two-loss Oklahoma jumped Cincinnati for beating the Cyclones and winning the Big 12, which showed no empirical evidence that it was any good this season.

Notre Dame and Texas A&M, meanwhile, lost by 24 to Clemson and 28 to Alabama, respectively.

Would Cincinnati do that any worse? Who knows, but you’d think it would be discussed, challenged or considered. It’s not like the Irish or Aggies were particularly strong contenders.

Instead Cincinnati was eliminated due to its conference affiliation. And it always will be as long as the subjective “eye test” determines the field. The committee thinks the AAC plays a lower level of football and isn’t worthy of deliberation for its precious playoff field.

Perhaps the committee is correct about that. We will never know. It’s all conjecture.

But if that’s the belief and this is the system, then end the charade and call the College Football Playoff what it really is — Not A Playoff for All of College Football.

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