It wasn't long ago that Ohio State completed an unprecedented run, beating Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon on their way to a National Title. Only a month prior, the College Football Playoff Committee was faced with the difficult decision of even selecting the Buckeyes as the fourth seed in the four-team playoff. TCU and Baylor were equally deserving and many felt (and continue to feel) Ohio State had the worst resume of the three options, yet the committee members took the Buckeyes, in a move that would have confused the BCS computers in much the same way Matthew Broderick bewildered the computer in WarGames.
The point is, with the introduction of the College Football Playoff (CFP), we have entered a new era of postseason college football, not just because it's a new system, but because it is a fluid, adaptable system where current playing level and a real, human perspective plays heavily into which four teams are selected for the playoff. In some ways, the margin of error for college football teams hoping for a playoff berth has increased because, even with a loss, they can impress the selection committee with their play in ways they couldn't with the old BCS computers.
On Friday, Shannon Owens-Green, with the Orlando Sentinel, published an interesting interview with CFP committee member Oliver Luck (yes, it is Andrew Luck's dad) where she asked him about the growing gap in college football between the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) and the rest of the field. Throughout the interview, Luck seems to express concerns over the growing gap, even amongst the schools in the Power Five conferences. Luck also explains that schools beyond the Power Five - like Memphis, UCF and Cincinnati - did garner a great deal of attention throughout last season, having different members monitoring the non-Power Five conferences and assessing those top teams, which bodes well for non-Power Five schools looking for a playoff berth.
CFP committee gave serious attention to Memphis, Cincinnati and UCF last year, NCAA's Oliver Luck said http://t.co/ovxaaPFxpj— Shannon Owens-Green (@osknights) May 29, 2015
That said, the final College Football Playoff Rankings only had one non-Power Five team in the top 25 with Boise State ranked 20th with a record of 11-2. So, what sort of chance does a non-Power Five team have at making it into the top-four? And what would the Bearcats really need to do make it to the playoffs?
Obviously, an undefeated season is the easy answer. Beating Memphis, Miami (FL), BYU, UCF and the rest of a quality AAC schedule would obviously be ideal, but let me play a little hypothetical, devil's advocate. Perhaps, the margin of error for the Bearcats is a little wider than that, despite playing in a non-Power Five conference. After all, they are already gaining recognition as a potential Cinderella.
Remember that the big argument for the Buckeyes at the end of last season was the way they were playing at the time. Regardless of their quarterback, or their opponent, they played at a high-level and they looked like a completely different team from the one that handed away that ugly loss to Virginia Tech. They epitomized the goal of the College Football Playoff. They were a team that was playing their best football at the end of the season and only had one blemish on their schedule.
If we follow that train of thought, is there a chance Cincinnati could lose a game early this upcoming season and then play their way into the National spotlight? Could they lose any early game to a team like Memphis and then go on a tear, finish the season 11-1 and then be considered a playoff team or is the gap too large for them, even with only one loss? Is it undefeated or nothing?
The gap in college football is very real. While you have the TCU's (when they were in the Mountain West), Boise State's and Utah's (Mountain West), that have demonstrated that "mid-major" programs can knock off traditional powers, those instances don't occur frequently enough for anyone to pick the one-loss Bearcats over a two-loss Power Five team, right?
Now, what if it is a 11-1 season, led by a healthy Gunner Kiel? Kiel has the ability and the weapons offensively to overwhelm opponents this season and put up some gaudy numbers. So, let's say the Bearcats lose early, win-out and Kiel leads them in a dominant fashion, showcasing the ability that made him a top-recruit out of high school? Cincinnati would be playing dominant football against quality opponents with a quarterback leading an offense that could run with most Power Five schools. If that were the case, I tend to believe the star power of Kiel, Shaq Washington and even Tommy Tuberville, would possibly be enough to push Cincinnati through. I think the human element of the selection process may sway towards the Bearcats because of our fascination with skill at the quarterback position.
Once again, an undefeated season is the easy answer. Win all your games and make them [the selection committee] pick over you. That's the simplest scenario for Cincinnati to get to the biggest stage in college football, but is that really the only way they can make it? Is the gap so big that a team like the Bearcats can't have a blemish on their record, or are there other scenarios?
I come from the belief that the new playoff system is supposed to reward the teams that are playing the best football by season's end and, contrary to many other non-Power Five schools, the Bearcats not only could be playing some of the best football by season's end after beating some quality opponents along the way, but would be doing so with indisputable talent at the most important position.
With talent on Cincinnati's roster at key positions, do you believe the margin for error is as small as it is for other non-Power Five schools? Is there a scenario where the Bearcats could lose a game, maybe two, and still be in the discussion by season's end or is an undefeated the only way into the top-four? Heck, do you think an undefeated season would even be enough?