“There isn’t a path to the College Football Playoff for Group of Five teams.”
That’s the (mostly fair) argument against a four-team playoff; half of FBS teams have no chance to crash the Power Five party without playoff expansion. With 40 percent of Power Five teams sidelined, does the Group of Five have a chance this year? Does Cincinnati have a chance?
Cincinnati is the best Group of Five team. Ranked 21st in my rankings before cancellations, the Bearcats are now 15th after eliminating six teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State, No. 10 Oregon, No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 14 Minnesota, and No. 15 Michigan.
Cincinnati’s conference schedule remains unchanged after American announced on Aug. 5 all teams will play their eight scheduled conference games (same opponent, same location, same date) and a maximum of four non-conference games. Cincinnati lost the Nebraska game after the Big Ten wiped out non-conference games and the Miami (OH) and Western Michigan games after the MAC canceled their fall season, leaving a Week 1 game vs. Austin Peay, which was moved back two weeks.
To sniff the playoff conversation, Cincinnati must run the table:
- Sept. 19: vs. Austin Peay
- Oct. 3: vs. USF
- Oct. 18: at Tulsa
- Oct. 24: at SMU
- Oct. 31: vs. Memphis
- Nov. 7: vs. Houston
- Nov. 12: vs. East Carolina
- Nov. 21: at UCF
- Nov. 28: at Temple
They must go 9-0 (or 10-0, 11-0, or 12-0 if they add more non-conference games), therefore there’s no sense in wasting time breaking down their opponents. Now, Cincinnati needs a ton of help from inside and outside the American.
One or two-loss champions from the ACC, Big 12, and SEC will be ranked ahead of Cincinnati in the final playoff rankings. Unless chaos erupts and a three-loss Oklahoma State, Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, or whomever wins their conference championship, each of the three remaining Power Five champions will be ranked ahead of Cincinnati. No Group of Five team has ever been ranked ahead of a conference champion from any of those three conferences, and without a strong schedule in 2020 (and conference-heavy or conference-only schedules from each of the three conferences), Cincinnati won’t break that streak in 2020.
That leaves, at best, one spot. Is there a path for Cincinnati to land that spot? Yes, but it’s arguably as narrow as any non-virus season.
There can’t be two undefeated teams in the ACC or SEC. (The Big 12 can’t have two undefeated teams because each team plays every team.) That’s potentially problematic in the SEC where West favorite Alabama and East contender Florida don’t play in the regular season. Or if you’re higher on LSU, the Tigers miss both Florida and Georgia. Or a step further: Texas A&M doesn’t play Georgia. In the ACC, it’s more friendly because Clemson and Notre Dame play each other, and, frankly none of the other 13 ACC teams will run the regular-season table.
One potential path for Cincinnati: Undefeated season (and strong years from SMU, Memphis, Houston, and UCF), Oklahoma win over one-loss (but ideally two-loss) Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship, and Clemson win over one-loss (again, ideally two-loss) Notre Dame in the ACC Championship, and Alabama win over one (again, ideally two-loss) Georgia in the SEC Championship. Oklahoma State’s two potential regular-season losses: Oklahoma and Texas. Notre Dame’s two potential regular-season losses: Clemson and North Carolina. Georgia’s two potential regular-season losses: Alabama and Florida.
Yes, there is a narrow playoff path for Cincinnati, especially in a season likely to be filled with oddities and unpredictability.