Cincinnati moved into position to make the College Football Playoff on Tuesday night, climbing a spot to fourth behind Georgia, Ohio State and Alabama.
A team from outside the Power Five conferences has never been selected for the semifinals in the previous seven years of the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State (10-1) moved up to No. 2 from fourth on the strength of a lopsided victory against Michigan State, and Alabama (10-1) slipped back a spot to three. Oregon’s loss to Utah cleared space in the top four and Cincinnati took it, moving up one spot.
Heading into the final full weekend of games, one loaded with playoff and conference championship implications, Cincinnati (11-0) has a realistic path to a playoff spot no matter what happens around the Bearcats.
“We keep trying to stress to our guys we have a ways to go,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said in an interview with ESPN. “The recognition is well deserved.”
Cincinnati plays at East Carolina (7-4) on Friday and then meets Houston (10-1), ranked 24th by the committee, in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Dec. 4.
Before this season, no team from a so-called Group of Five conference had ever been ranked better than seventh by the CFP selection committee.
Michigan (10-1) is fifth heading into its game against Ohio State that should produce the Big Ten’s best shot to make the playoff.
Notre Dame (10-1) is sixth. The Fighting Irish’s only loss is to Cincinnati.
Oklahoma State (10-1) at seventh is the highest ranked Big 12 team.
Selection committee chairman Gary Barta, who is also Iowa’s athletic director, said the Bearcats were compared both to the three teams above and below them when the group was sorting through this week’s top 25.
“The strength of schedule is always a conversation with Cincinnati,” Barta said, but added that the Bearcats 48-14 victory against SMU (8-3) left little to complain about this week.
Oklahoma State’s Big 12 rivals Baylor (eighth, 9-2) and Oklahoma (10th, 10-1) round out the top 10 with Mississippi (9-2) in between.
The Sooners play at Oklahoma State on Saturday in a game that will help determine who plays in the Big 12 title game.
The final CFP rankings will be revealed Dec. 5 and the top four teams will play in the semifinals on Dec. 31 in the Orange and Cotton bowls. The national championship game is scheduled for Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.
Is Cincinnati in control of its playoff hopes?
It certainly looks that way, but calling it a slam dunk is probably an overstatement. Here is the scenario that makes things most precarious for the Bearcats even if they stay unbeaten.
— Alabama beats Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game, leaving both the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs 12-1 and easy choices to be in the field of four. Alabama with a competitive loss to Georgia will also clearly still be in the mix, though no team with two losses has ever made the playoff.
If any team is going to break that precedent, Alabama is a good bet.
Barta said of the Tide and Ohio State: “Both are considered to be great teams, not just good teams.”
— The winner of Ohio State-Michigan goes on to win the Big Ten, making that team a lock to grab a playoff spot.
— Oklahoma State — or maybe Oklahoma — wins out to leave the Big 12 champion 12-1.
Can Cincinnati hold off a 12-1 Big 12 champion or an 11-2 Alabama with a close loss to Georgia?
No Group of Five team has ever been particularly close to finishing in the top four, even the unbeaten ones like UCF in 2017 and ‘18 and Cincinnati last season.
Coming into this season there was little reason to believe a Power Five conference champion with one-loss would be in danger of finishing behind a unbeaten G5 team.
So until it actually happens, feel free to hold onto a little bit of skepticism.