So, how much of the Cincinnati game did the College Football Playoff committee watch on Friday night?
Did they watch the fifth-ranked Bearcats run up a 24-point lead on South Florida early in the third quarter? Did they stay tuned for the lull that allowed the Bulls to score back-to-back touchdowns and make things a little more competitive than a two-win team should have been against an undefeated team? Did they watch none of it, and just see the 45-28 final score that lifted Cincinnati to 10-0 on the year?
The Bearcats are undefeated, yet behind Georgia and three one-loss teams in the CFP ranking: Alabama, Oregon, and Ohio State. The performance that Cincinnati turned on on Friday is not going to vault the Bearcats over any of those teams if all three prevail on Saturday — Alabama against New Mexico State, Oregon against Washington State, Ohio State against No. 19 Purdue — but the real question right now is, if one of those teams loses, would it be enough to get Cincy into the top four?
And forget about Georgia, which could conceivably hang onto the top spot, and definitely won’t drop out of the playoff slots, even with a loss at Tennessee, as they’re still clearly the best team. Also, Georgia is not losing at Tennessee.
Michigan winning convincingly at Penn State might get the Wolverines past Cincinnati in the committee’s eyes, but it would also be the Nittany Lions’ fourth loss, making such a victory less impressive after James Franklin’s team got dumped from the rankings already. It’s hard to imagine anything Michigan State can do against Maryland, being that it’s Maryland, that would vault the Spartans over the Bearcats.
Where Cincinnati should find concern is with the other undefeated team the committee has been underrating, Oklahoma. Ranked eighth somehow, the Sooners are in Waco for its first game all year against a team that doesn’t stink, No. 13 Baylor. As impressive as Cincinnati’s win over Notre Dame is, if Oklahoma adds a quality win, you can see where the committee would rate its often struggle-filled wins over garbage teams (Texas is a brand name! Nebraska has multiple national titles!) as more impressive than Cincinnati’s often struggle-filled wins over teams from the American Athletic Conference.
The good news is that as bumbling as the committee is, and as much as they might look to freeze out non-Power 5 Cincinnati, it’s ultimately in the Bearcats’ hands to show what they can do, and playoff contention should be determined by performance against good competition, not whether you can run up the score on South Florida or Tulsa or Navy.
The Bearcats next face SMU, which started 7-0 before losing its last two, and it’s all but a certainty that the AAC title game will pit Cincinnati against Houston, whose only loss this season was in the opener against Texas Tech. Meanwhile, Georgia and Alabama are on a collision course to meet for the SEC title, while Ohio State and Michigan still have to play each other — and the Buckeyes have to play Michigan State. Then there are the conference title games in the Power 5, and you know that Oregon and Oklahoma are plenty capable of dropping a game before the final rankings.
Cincinnati won’t rise above No. 5 this week, but if they take care of their business the rest of the season — and with the teams they play, the margins shouldn’t matter — then the Bearcats should find their way into a CFP semifinal. The rankings now are what they are, but not what they’ll be at the end, and that’s the only one that matters. And if an undefeated Cincinnati isn’t in that final four, it’s absolutely time to scrap the whole thing and start over.