Depending on who you ask, college football may or may not have a problem. If you ask a fan of any Power 5 conference, I’m sure most of them would tell you there is nothing wrong with the current college football landscape. However, most fans of Group of Five teams would probably tell you there is an elitist issue in regards to CFP selections.
Since the CFP’s inception in 2015, the only non-Power 5 school to reach the CFP was Notre Dame, which did so in 2019 and 2021. Despite several Group of Five schools having fantastic and occasionally undefeated seasons since 2015, none have been given the honor of competing for the national championship. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. If the best schools in the nation all compete in Power 5 conferences, then there’s no reason the CFP shouldn’t be filled with those schools. However, with several Power 5 conferences about to get a major retooling with Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, as well as BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF set to join the Big 12 no later than the 2024-2025 season, we are just a few years away from even fewer Group of Five schools competing for the college football playoff.
While Group of Five schools all compete against one another throughout the season, you get the feeling that there’s this sense of respect between them. They root for each other to show the Power 5 conferences that they have the potential to be just as strong, and in 2021, with so many top-25 schools losing games early in the season, Cincinnati might be the Group of Five’s best chance to sneak into the CFP ever. Thus far into the season, there have been 25 losses by AP top-25 teams. According to ESPN, that’s the most losses this early in the season since 1936. That chaos has swung the door wide open for Cincinnati to reach the playoff.
In the CFP era, no Group of Five school has ever started a season ranked as high as Cincinnati was this preseason (No. #8). After a season where the Bearcats finished 9-1 with their only loss of the season coming against Georgia in the Peach Bowl, Cincinnati is facing a lot of pressure in 2021. They’re not only facing pressure to succeed in order to keep the reputation of their program strong, but their success and inclusion/exclusion from this year’s CFP could determine the future of Group of Five’s schools in the College Football Playoff for years to come.
Even with CFP expansion talks hotter than ever before, the likelihood of a Group of Five team being taken seriously by the Associated Press when determining rankings, is very low. So, while a few Group of Five teams could end the season ranked within the top-12, and reach the playoffs under the new, expanded format, they likely wouldn’t be given the credit they deserve and could be forced into tougher matchups because their level of competition throughout the regular season was not up to par with that of the Power 5 schools they’re competing against.
That’s why Cincinnati’s game today against Notre Dame is so important, not just for Cincinnati, but for all Group of Five schools that have been praying for the AP Poll to take them seriously. If the Bearcats can’t manage to take down Notre Dame, that only strengthens the Associated Press’s beliefs that a Group of Five school can’t compete with the big college football brands across the country.
If Cincinnati does reach the playoff, that would set a new precedent for Group of Five schools. The Bearcats will have broken the barrier that schools like UCF, Houston, and others have only scratched at, and it will hopefully give Group of Five schools newfound respect from the CFP committee that they didn’t have before — the type of respect that ranks SEC universities with two losses lower than undefeated MAC universities, because they’ve now realized the level of competition in those non-Power 5 conferences can be solid.
Coming into this game, Cincinnati was slightly favored by most sportsbooks, as they should be. The Bearcats have been the more efficient team. I like Desmond Ridder more than Jack Coan, and the playmakers on Cincinnati’s defense are abundant. It should be a great game with implications the Bearcats don’t even realize. Hopefully the pressure doesn’t get to them.