TAMPA — You could see everything about No. 2 Cincinnati’s push for the College Football Playoff in the first series of Friday night’s 45-28 win over USF.
Standout defensive end Myjai Sanders batted down USF’s first throw at Raymond James Stadium. The Bearcats (10-0, 6-0 AAC) stuffed a second-down run. Then they gifted the Bulls (2-8, 1-5) a first down after jumping offside on third and fourth down.
That’s the way it has gone all season, it seems, for the best Group of Five team of the College Football Playoff era. The Bearcats look like a very good team that belongs in the playoff. Until they don’t.
Perhaps it’s an unfair standard to hold them to, especially after they beat a conference opponent by 17 on the road. But the Bearcats’ schedule gives them no margin for error. If they’re going to have any shot at becoming the first non-Power Five team to crash the playoff, they have to look much better than they did Friday.
There were flashes when Cincinnati looked like a great team — one that’s a notch below Georgia but on par with Oklahoma, Oregon, Ohio State, Alabama and any other legitimate playoff contender.
Cornerback Ahmad Gardner, a potential NFL first-round draft pick, knocked the ball out of USF quarterback Timmy McClain’s hands and soared for an interception on the sideline. He’s as good as any defensive back in the country, which is why USF intentionally avoided him all night.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder is also a future pro, one of a likely half-dozen NFL draft picks on the roster. He picked apart USF’s defense, accounting for 369 yards total passing and rushing, and three touchdowns. His two passing scores gave him 79 for his career and moved him past Gino Guidugli for the most in Bearcats history.
Sanders was a formidable pass rusher whom USF coach Jeff Scott calls “incredible.” Linebacker Ty Van Fossen was a steady tackler in the open field. Even with star running back Jerome Ford, an Armwood High alumnus, out with a leg injury, the Bearcats still rushed for 202 yards and averaged 5.6 per carry.
Put it all together and this team stacks up favorably to 2015-16 Houston, 2017-18 UCF and other great Group of Five teams of this era.
“My vote is they deserve to be in the top four before it’s all said and done,” said Scott, who knows what final-four teams look like after coaching in five playoffs as a Clemson assistant.
But Scott does not get a vote. That’s decided by the playoff selection committee. This week, it ranked the Bearcats fifth, the highest spot ever attained by a non-Power Five team.
And that cuts to the root of the problem. Cincinnati deserves to be near the top, but it hasn’t done enough to demand inclusion in the final four. Friday’s performance hurt its case.
Cincinnati committed two turnovers in four snaps in the first quarter. One of them, an interception by USF cornerback Christian Williams, set up the Bulls’ first touchdown.
Sanders made a great spin move to get to McClain and grabbed his face mask, handing the Bulls a first down.
Ridder found tight end Josh Whyle open for a 32-yard touchdown pass, but it was negated by an ineligible-man-downfield penalty.
Though the final score looked comfortable, it wasn’t. USF scored a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter — including an 80-yard catch and run by receiver Jimmy Horn — to go into the final period down 10. The Bulls deserve credit for fighting, just as they have all year.
But if the Bearcats are really one of the four best teams in the country, they wouldn’t have let a team with one Division I-A victory in the last two years hang around. They wouldn’t have been stopped four times inside the USF 5-yard line with a chance to put the game away in the fourth quarter. Just as they wouldn’t have needed a late stop (and some luck) to beat Tulsa last week.
Fate seemed to agree. As the Bearcats closed out another win that was somehow both impressive and unimpressive, the telecast was moved from ESPN2 to ESPNEWS because of a U.S.-Mexico soccer World Cup qualifier.
It was a fitting tribute to this team. The Bearcats are good — maybe even very good. But if they get left off bigger stages this postseason, they’ll deserve it.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
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